Thursday, 21 November 2013

Melissa Harrington's spirited response to Markus Altena Davidsen

Back in 2012, the Danish religious studies scholar Markus Altena Davidsen of the University of Leiden published a review article in the Method and Theory in the Study of Religion journal titled "What is Wrong with Pagan Studies ?". In this, he attacked the theoretical and methodological perspectives prevalent within the field of Pagan studies, with which I am involved, via a critique of a recent anthology on the subject, Murphy Pizza and James R. Lewis' Handbook of Contemporary Paganism (Brill, 2009).

Although I felt that Davidsen made a few pertinent observations, it was immediately clear to me that there were a great many problems with his paper, which largely stemmed from the fact that he had had no real experience with Pagan studies scholarship, instead relying on a very limited command of the literature on the subject. As such, I responded to him with a paper titled "In Defense of Pagan Studies", which was published in The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies several months later.

Now, Melissa Harrington of the University of Cumbria has responded to Davidsen in her own (unpublished) paper, which she has uploaded onto her academia.edu account (here). Harrington is one of those Pagan studies scholars who was most heavily criticised by Davidsen, and her reply is certainly well worth a read. I personally feel that in parts her response is perhaps a little more vitriolic than necessary, but then again, she clearly feels wronged by Davidsen, highlighting where he has continuously misrepresented her position and asserting that his paper was more libel than critique. She goes so far as to suggest that he makes "an unwarranted character assassination aimed to discredit my academic integrity." I'm not convinced that that was his intention, but I am nevertheless glad that she is making her opinion heard on the issue. It of course reminds me somewhat of the situation back in June 2012 when an anonymous Pagan blogger began making bizarre personal attacks against the archaeologist and Pagan studies scholar Caroline Jane Tully. Critiquing the work of other scholars is of course a core part of academic discourse, and that can include some criticism of any undisclosed bias that may affect their views, but when you start making personal attacks against the scholars themselves then that crosses a line and should rightfully be condemned by the academic community and society at large.

9 comments:

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  2. Is there any chance you could upload a pre-print copy of your paper to academia.edu, Ethan? I can't access it (even though the university that I work for seems to have a subscription to The Pomegranate).

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    1. I'm not sure of all the copyright restrictions surrounding the inclusion of my papers on academia.edu, and in cases like this my preference is to err on the side of caution. I really don't want to upload a version of my paper onto there, only to receive a legal letter from Equinox Publishing informing me that I am in copyright violation ! But at the same time I would love for my paper to be freely accessible to anyone who would like to read it; hence the beauty of the Open Access system which the Correspondences journal operates under. Maybe this is a situation that we could discuss further by email, Yewtree ? You can find my email address in the "About Me" bar on the right hand side of the page.

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    2. You may consider publishing your proof version on Academia. Most scholars use their proof versions to work around copyright restrictions.

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  3. The above-mentioned anonymous Pagan blogger attacking me on the internet actually begun about a year prior with attacks on Chas Clifton and Peg Aloi in regards to their critique of Ben Whitmore's 'Trials of the Moon', as can be seen by searching their blog comments sections. And those attacks were really harsh and vitriolic - typical internet poison. I don't think Melissa's Academia.edu paper in response to Markus Davidsen is in that category (which you probably didn't mean to indicate, just that you mentioned that it reminded you of that), and while obviously displaying emotion, I didn't think her paper was as 'personal' as I had expected from reading Shawn Arthur's reply to her post on the Pagan Studies list. I mean I expected it to be _more_ personal. Melissa did say it was a draft, I think, and that she welcomed comments and criticism. I guess when you say that often it can mean that you sometimes end up having to significantly re-write your paper. Obviously it'd be nice if we could all be at the AAR this year to discuss this verbally!

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    1. I will clarify that my intention was not to equate Ms Harrington's position with that of the anonymous Pagan blogger, which (although they share commonalities) are obviously quite distinct. Ms Harrington believes that Mr Davidsen has gone beyond fair criticism and has been libelous toward her; conversely the anonymous Pagan blogger clearly had gone beyond fair criticism and had been libelous toward yourself. Both situations entail a scholar of Pagan studies coming under criticism that verges into unpleasant and unfair personal attacks, but the nature of those attacks clearly differ; Davidsen and the anonymous blogger are not directly comparable.

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    2. Now that I think of it, the situation between Professor Ronald Hutton and New Zealand Wiccan Ben Whitmore, author of the "Trials of the Moon" book, is also broadly reminiscent. In his own response to Whitmore's criticism (published as "Writing the History of Witchcraft" in volume 12, no. 2 of The Pomegranate), Hutton exclaims that Whitmore's criticism was an attempt to portray him as "an unscrupulous and deceitful individual motivated by a concealed hostility to Paganism" (p. 253). Maybe I'm wrong, but from their use of language, it seems to me that Hutton's attitude to Whitmore has many affinities with Harrington's attitude to Davidsen. Both feel that the critique aimed against their scholarly work is actually a personal attack designed to tarnish and damage their academic reputations. In Hutton's case I think that he was probably right, although in Harrington's I am not so convinced. However, I will certainly accept that Davidsen's use of language could have been less personal, and more civil and polite, and I am pleased that Harrington is standing up for herself and letting her feelings be known.

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  4. I agree. And isn't it interesting how passionate discussing modern Paganism can get? I don't see this occurring in places such as Aegean Archaeology........

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    1. Well, I suppose that passionate arguments have a tendency to raise their heads when discussing any living religious movement, whether that be Paganism, Christianity, or whatever. I'd even go so far as to extend that to any ideological trend, for I know a number of Marxists, anarchists, and conservatives who can get equally riled up if their beliefs about the nature of society and what they deem to be progress are in any way challenged or queried. I'm no psychologist, but no doubt psychological explanations have been put forward for it.

      With academic subjects like Aegean archaeology, or my own specialism Anglo-Saxon archaeology, I would suggest that (broadly speaking), those specialising in the subject have less invested in it on a personal level. They might find the subject fascinating, but it doesn't shape their entire world view in the way that a religious or ideological belief would. It's probably worth highlighting here that passionate arguments certainly used to emerge on a fairly regular basis in archaeological theory (primarily between the processualists and post-processualists in the late 1970s through to the 1990s), but again that could be down to the fact that such theoretical perspectives affected not only how these archaeologists interpreted the past, but also how they viewed the entire world around them. Just a thought.

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