Institutional religions and the persistence of a personal faith

This is a reaction paper for the 7th week of GY802 here in NUI Maynooth.

Marston et al. bookend their paper on human geography without scale by quoting Le Guin (1974). The import of the quotation is that we miss the contingency of our lives when lost in the beauty of the world’s wholeness:

If you see a whole thing – it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives . . . But close up a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern.

In losing the pattern, Marston et al would claim we lose the ability to forge networks of power that can undermine the small-large imaginary, the scaffold that supports the domination of populations and socially-produced space. Hierarchical models of scale are deficient in that, among other things, they “cannot deliver engaged and self-reflexive accounts of social life” (422). They “elect to expurgate scale from the geographic vocabulary” without providing an operationalisation of that expurgation. This is an attractive, if a little penitential, prospect for geographic thought. The ontology that they suggest for human geography is formal and theoretical. It seeks the replacement of vertical and horizontal conceptions of scale (and hence space) with a flat ontology. They want to “discard the centring [sic] essentialism that infuses not only the up–down vertical imaginary but also the radiating (out from here) spatiality of horizontality” (422). Flattening the thought-globe in this manner means that distortions will occur. For me one of these distortions is a research plan based on (re)presenting what was formerly covered over by the problem of ‘scaling up’ too readily. As Marston et al. state themselves, what is required is a “sustained attention to the intimate and divergent relations between bodies, objects, orders and spaces” (424). What might this research plan look like?

In a project I am conducting at work on the subject of parental understandings of Church involvement in schools, groups of parents were asked to discuss a range of topics. The project was planned and centrally organized by a group of people with an ‘overview’ of Catholic primary school provision. In doing so, specific choices about what ‘parents’ believe to be the case in their child’s school were made. We needed to elicit some forms of information that remain institutionally relevant for devising policy and decision making over a territory we were mandated to map. In this way, the institutional imperatives of the Catholic Church in Ireland are transposed to other scales. In Massey’s conception, the dynamic of people’s lives for them and their children is made static by framing topics for discussion (108). These topics would be grounded in particular locations and these would serve as the ‘understandings’ of the parents involved. These understandings, formally representations of the meaning of their place, are distillations, whispers of the intimate and divergent relations between their intentionalising bodies, the objects around them and the ordering practices of what is ‘the right way of doing things’.

What arises from the experience of the parental discussion groups is that these groundings of centralised power (those who wield the power would not conceive of itself in any other way for otherwise it has no authority) conceive of a series of truths as coming from the small-scale ‘up’. Some of these discussions required explanation of the map of primary school education to those who send their children to a Catholic primary school. One can only gain knowledge of the totality by the totality’s own reckoning. The act of educating one’s child at that moment becomes more than just a matter of maintaining class positions or the desirability of the inculcation of specific Christian values. The parents must be made aware of the entire map in order to ‘fix’ their representations of the educational experience. Is this an institutional attempt to make the seemingly chaotic and the transitory comprehensible to policy, and thence to power? Massey’s street market analogy is echoed in the project. The meanings ascribed by some parents to the importance of their child being educated within a Catholic school may seem chaotic but they have an order.

The school is close by

They have good teachers there

My husband went to the school so my daughter does too.

These are not local concerns to be scaled up into ‘policy issues’. Their representation is organised around practices made concrete by the deployment of institutional power. What parents wish to see for their children (safe environments for learning, say or the instilling of Christian values) is contingently expressed. This is put to service in the mapping of parental understandings of Church involvement. In being put to service in this way, the contingent is concretised in a political process. The assertion that “it is more complex than you say” during discussion about what could be a new way to teach important principles of personal faith can be lost. The repetition that “this is a Catholic school and if you don’t want that then do not enrol your child” on the other hand is a representation of a practice altogether more politicised, pre-formed by ‘scaled up’ conceptions of how the world should be.

Massey says that not all views from above are inherently bad. The corollary that not all views from below are inherently bad also needs to be worked through. Views from below are represented in particular ways strategically and at points for specific political moments. A research agenda based on such a “sustained attention to the intimate…relations between bodies, objects, orders and spaces” (424) may flatten the spatially unequal. If such a research agenda is relationally ordered through existing power relationships, it will not work because it retains the small-large imaginary.