Saturday, 27 December 2014

Some Thoughts on Academic Impact and the Contemporary Pagan Movement

As most academics must surely be aware, a major factor of contemporary academia, at least in the UK, is that of impact; the contribution that one's research makes to wider society. Universities and funding bodies are obsessed with impact, and many would say rightly so - after all, most academic institutions are subsidised by the state and its tax-payers, and thus they should be engaging in projects that contribute back to society, rather than simply undertaking obscure research for the sake of research that interests few and is useful to even fewer. Many fields of research make a clear contribution to society and/or the state; medical science for instance has obvious health benefits for many sectors of the population, while technological innovation similarly eases and enriches the lives of many. But what of Pagan studies ? Does this small, and still comparatively fledgling field make much of an impact on wider society ? Does the average person on the street give a monkeys about the etymology of "Wicca" or the theological structure of Robert Cochrane's Witchcraft tradition

I've been thinking about this issue in large part due to two recent events that have involved me and my work. The first occured a few weeks ago when Cara Schulz, a reporter for popular U.S.-based Pagan news site The Wild Hunt, asked for my opinion on a story that had been making the rounds online; the story highlighted recent research conducted by Georgian geologists which claimed to have found new evidence for the factual underpinnings of the ancient Hellenic myth of Jason and the Argonauts. Although my expertise certainly doesn't lie within the remit of ancient Greece, I had no doubt been chosen both for my academic (and specifically archaeological) credentials, as well as my Pagan-friendly status. Independently, Schulz had also consulted my colleague and friend Caroline Tully, who like myself juggles archaeology with contemporary Pagan studies but whose perspective differs from mine in that she is a practicing Pagan herself (for those interested, I'm a secular humanist). The Wild Hunt article, which is available here, quoted both of us on the merits and problems of the news story and the research that it was based upon.

Shortly after, I came across a series of informational videos which had been posted to YouTube by educational channel OathBoundSecrets. These videos were devoted to a variety of Pagan and esoteric subjects, and to my surprise a number of them (such as this one on the etymology of "Wicca" and this on Robert Cochrane) relied upon and quoted my own research. It seemed apparent that the creators of these videos had obtained the information not first-hand from my publications themselves, but from Wikipedia articles in which some of my work is quoted and cited; evidence for my long-held position that while academically-problematic, Wikipedia is nevertheless a resource with great potential for transmitting the findings of academic research to a far larger audience. For me, this was really nice to see, because it showed that practicing Wiccans are actually finding my work to be of interest and utility to them; clearly, my work is having an impact, even if it might only be a small one.

Thus, there are clearly instances where practicing Pagans are making good use of the research publications brought out by scholars of Pagan studies, and where they are further approaching said scholars for advice on scholarly matters. This can only be a good thing. But there are of course pitfalls which need to be considered. In his much-debated paper in the Method and Theory in the Study of Religion journal, the religious studies scholar Markus Altena Davidsen charged Pagan studies with being dominated by practicing Pagans themselves, thus spending more time promulgating contemporary Paganism than critically analysing it. Keeping this in mind, we should be concerned that as Pagan studies scholars, we might be unduly focusing on our impact within the Pagan movement itself rather than in other sectors of society. While I think it clear that large sectors of the Pagan community are certainly going to be very interested in our findings, we should not be blind to the fact that many other individuals - those interested in new religious movements or reception of the ancient world, public policy makers, and no doubt others, would be interested too. After all, if myself - as a non-Pagan scholar of Pagan studies - can be fascinated by the contemporary Pagan movement, then surely many other non-Pagans can be too ? This is something that we, as scholars, need to have a conversation about. 

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