Monthly Archives: January 2015

A Surfeit of Calendars in the Middle East

The story is related of Hulegu, the Mongol conqueror of Baghdad in 1258, that he once encountered a band of Qalandar sufis.  Those were the wild and woolly ones, who deliberately flouted social conventions and even the sharia in various ways to show how holy they really were.  Hulegu asked the Muslim leader Nasir al-Din Tusi, who was accompanying him, who these social misfits were, and Tusi replied that they were the excess waste of society.  So Hulegu ordered them all killed.  I am not a Mongol general, but after a frustrating series of miscalculations I can harbor similar feelings as Tusi to the plethora of calendars in the Middle East.

Most societies have found it useful to have a common calendar, and many indeed come to regard their shared ways of marking time as so natural that they forget the existence of alternatives.  Years, months, and days are simply natural phenomena with uncomplicated definitions.  Until one encounters a radically different calendar. Continue reading

Constructed Social Phenomena: The Right Metaphor?

Recently I had the privilege to finally pick up a classic text in the social scientific study of religion, Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy (1967).  Berger was an early leader in the development of sociological thought which took seriously the ways in which social phenomena are not “given” or “natural” but instead “constructed.”  His views have influenced sociologists and non-sociologists alike, and it is now common to refer to phenomena long regarded as immutable and natural (such as gender) as cultural constructs.  This theoretical move usefully highlights the contingency of phenomena widely, and perhaps necessarily, taken for granted.

Without diminishing Berger’s accomplishment, I found myself wondering whether construction was the right metaphor.  It was an obvious choice: in common English parlance the opposite of “natural” is frequently “artificial” (as in sweeteners), and the lack of a useful English verb corresponding to “artificial” might lead to considering related activities of making or building.  And constructions have the advantage of not also appearing in nature, so the opposition is immediate and readily intelligible.  On the other hand, there are four ways where I think the metaphor of construction can (and probably has) misled scholars when thinking about societies and cultures: deliberation, individuality, stability, and questions of origins. Continue reading