The SSRC’s “New Landscape of the Religion Blogosphere”

1 Dec

Today on the Social Science Resource Council’s blog, The Immanent Frame: Secularism, Religion and the Public Sphere, you can read a rather substantial report on “The New Landscape of the Religion Blogosphere.” I have great respect for its primary author, Nathan Schneider, who started at UCSB the same year I did, but left swiftly after completing his Master’s degree to pursue religious study beyond the Ph.D. Schneider has promoted a more expansive view of the roles and responsibilities of religious studies scholars. This emphasis is readily apparent in the new report, which balances the fact of growing scholarly presence in the blogosphere with optimism about its growth and confirmation about the value of blogs for academics and the public.

The first section of the report, “Why bother with blogs?” contends that “the blogosphere has become one of the eminent spaces for serious public discourse in the online world.” This eminence comes with a cost, however, not only for scholars, who can spend considerable time working on their blogs, but also for the academy’s link to the public as “the informality and lack of oversight that characterizes much of the blogosphere takes its toll on readers’ trust.”

In section two, “Blogging and academia” authored by Ruth Braunstein, blogs are positioned as a digital frontier for academics where many authors hope their work might  “foster new and enhanced forms of scholarly collaboration of the kind most researchers strive for, but cannot—because of limits to time, resources, or nearby colleagues—actually bring about.” If that seems rosy, there are many academic concerns and plenty of professional anxieties . From issues of authority to the looming challenges of differentiating blogs from “real” scholarship, the risks/rewards of participation in the digital frontiers are still developing.

The next section of the work maps the religion blogosphere as a  sophisticated network of small discourses. Should blogs be judged by perceived authority, site traffic, depth of their connections to other blogs, interaction with the community through comments, or some combination of metrics? Moreover, if we’re classifying blogs, what criteria should we use? Might we divide blogs into content areas such as political opinion, culture and ideas, academic research, news, and so on? The challenge seems to be that  “like so much of the Internet,  the religion blogosphere is a system of self-directed, independent parts, fueled by a variety of motivations and following no coherent underlying design.” Moreover, it’s dynamic and constantly evolving.

In what I found to be the most interesting section of the report, “Religion bloggers on blogging,” describes not only the challenges of using blogs as CV appropriate professional service, but also cites areas of the blogosphere that need development, such as additional “high quality academic writing,” focus on “Islam as a lived religion,” and more reviews/discussion of “religion-related books.” These items were contributed directly from 19 blogging scholars, and I wouldn’t mind seeing even more of their frank evaluations.

Finally, in two great services to the blogosphere, the report first collects an innovative bibliography related to blogging and the digital public sphere before then offering a substantial blogroll of religion blogs. These are excellent resources and I expect they’ll continue to grow. They invite religion blog authors and readers to submit sites for addition to the roll. (Please send nominations to ifblog@ssrc.org with the name, URL, and a description of the blog.) I’m not on there, for instance, especially since I’ve been publishing privately for the last year or so. I imagine there are many, many others who are also flying underneath the radar.

If you want to download the report as a single PDF, the SSRC has got you covered. This won’t update with the blogroll, but it will provide easy access to the substantive discussion the report has produced. Be sure to let Nathan know you appreciate the report by sending him a tweet at @nathanairplane

[Yes, weekends are for dissertation topics, but this was both timely (the report just came out) and appropriate for the relaunch of my own blogging site. Check back next weekend for an update on spiritual warfare and spatial prayer.]

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