Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Limits of American Jewish Sociology And Why We Should Just Turn The Whole Thing Over To The Anthropologists To Avoid Further Embarrassment

Rachel Gross has an excellent piece on the Pew survey today in Religion and Politics.

She makes the point, as others have, that the survey is deeply flawed because it reflects a religious bias:

From outside the field of sociology, I find the Pew study’s approach to the age-old question of “Who is a Jew?” admirable but incomplete. By necessity, it makes the category of religion appear rigid, implicitly prioritizing belief where a variety of practices and identities may be at least as important to how people conceive of themselves religiously.
And the writers of the Pew survey rely on unexamined assumptions about American Jews rather than unpacking old narratives and uncovering new ways of understanding:
The story being told here is one of secularism, or, in clichéd American Jewish terms, “assimilation,” a move from an imagined, essentialized religious Judaism that is threatened by American culture toward watered-down Jewish identities or, in more catastrophic imaginings, the disappearance of American Jews altogether. 
But beyond the door of the synagogue or Jewish communal center, American Jews’ spiritual lives are rich, complex, and hard to pin down. Divisions between Judaism (the religion) and Jewishness (the culture) are no longer useful, if they ever were. Simplistic “religious” and “secular” Jews no longer accurately describe the diversity of American Jewish practice, if they ever did. 
Omeyn! If you ask me, the false division of Jewish life into 'religion' and 'culture' lies at the heart of however you want to name our present crisis. 

Gross has her own research methods which aim to undo this unnatural division:

In my own qualitative ethnographic research, I examine the quotidian activities of American Jews across and beyond denominational structures, divisions that have become increasingly fluid. I have found that American Jews with a broad array of religious affiliations and no affiliation engage in the ostensibly nonreligious activities of Jewish genealogical research, attending Jewish historic sites, consuming markedly Jewish food, and purchasing books and toys that teach Jewish heritage to their children. These are mundane activities, yet engagement with them may provide a core emotional connection to a Jewish identity. 
For my own research purposes, I am still waiting for a national survey to ask about attendance at Jewish museums, as the 2000 Jewish Community Study of Greater Baltimore did. That study found that 59 percent of its respondents reported visiting a Jewish museum in the past three years. Sixty-five percent of Orthodox Jews had visited a Jewish museum; 57 percent of “non-denominational and secular Jews” had visited one. These mundane activities are deeply meaningful to American Jews and form the basis of religious identities. As many American Jews have grown increasingly distant from traditional communal structures, they find Jewish meaning in unconventional ones, such as restaurants and museums. The Pew survey tells us some important things about Jews. But it does not come close to revealing the range of everyday American Jewish practices, which continue to fall outside the recognized boundaries of religion. 

If she's waiting for another national survey to ask the real questions, well, she's gonna be waiting approximately a decade, if not longer. That's the real scandal here, that we got a shot at getting some good data, and we blew it. That's a multi-million dollar mistake.

Rachel Gross is hardly the first person to suggest that the whole approach toward surveys needs to be examined. These concerns have been coming from inside the Jewish sociological establishment for decades.

In his 1949 (updated in 1955) landmark study of a Chicago suburb he called "Park Forest," Herbert Gans, the grandfather of American Jewish sociology, noted a significant gap in his own data:

"...however, it should be remembered that there are many Jewish families in Park Forest who, as the 1949 study showed, do not participate in any formal activities, although they maintain some relationship with the Jewish community through Jewish friends. Because there is no public evidence of their affiliation, they are often overlooked in the concern with formal organizations. The Jewish life of these people, who constitute close to half the Jewish population of Park Forest, was not studied in the 1955 revisit, and leaves a gap in the description of the total Jewish community." [emphasis mine]
(The Origin and Growth of a Jewish Community in the Suburbs: a Study of the Jews of Park Forest, 1949, 1955)

In 1992, esteemed Jewish sociologist Egon Mayer wrote a paper called The Coming Reformation in American Jewish Identity. In it he tried to assess our ability to predict the Jewish demographic future. It just so happens the future is here, and it doesn't look that different, all for the worse.

At the end of his paper he points out that his peers in Jewish sociology are stuck within the model of Jewishness they were raised in, one heavy on membership and belonging:

“...the associationalism that had come to characterize modern Jewish identity in the experience of the typical American Jew of the postwar era found its social scientific adumbration in Jewish community surveys that have come to measure "Jewishness" by means of behavior and attitude scales and other social yardsticks pegging identity to belonging. We have been far less adept at picking up the quiet signals of the invisible Judaism that con­tinues to animate Jewish identity alongside or independently of formal affilia­tions or the public and private acts that are generally considered the appropriate operational expression of one's Jewishness.” [emphasis mine]
Consequently, any attempt to peer into the future, whether 20 or 50 years hence, to imagine the shape and nature of Jewish identification, must grapple with both the factual implications of the current measures of Jewishness and the question of what those measures may have missed hitherto in conceiving of Jewish identity.

I don't see a lot of grappling going on, do you? Jewish sociologists have had more than 20 years since Mayer's cri de coeur in which to reckon with their own prejudices and preconceptions.  And what do we have to show for it?

But hey, let's talk about that intermarriage crisis...

1 comment:

  1. for what it's worth, "qualitative ethnographic research" more-or-less = doing anthropology, even if her training and credentials come from a sociology department. yes, huge amounts of good national survey data that asks and answers better questions than this recent one did would be awful nice, but it's ultimately unnecessary for qualitative, ethnographic research.