Call for papers

David Bloor formulated the principle of symmetry in the sociology of knowledge very simply: “The symmetry postulate (...) enjoins us to seek the same kind of causes for both true and false, rational and irrational beliefs.” This formulation has far reaching consequences. With such an approach, the study of scientific knowledge can be conducted in the same manner as the study of the knowledge practices of “ordinary” people in everyday situations, including the variety of practices called “religion”. In this case, the study of ordinary practices as well as the study of scientific knowledge changes radically; the “Great Divide” (Bruno Latour), which makes them completely incommensurable, vanishes; they appear side by side, all open to the same kinds of questions and open-ended research into their complex relations, all treated with the same respect. “Anthropology comes home from the tropics,” as Bruno Latour put it. Another consequence is that “there is no privilege (...). [Symmetry] erodes distinctions that are said to be given in the nature of things, and instead asks how it is that they got to be that way” (John Law).

The principle of symmetry also gives a new meaning to reflexivity in social scientific study. Reflexivity within this approach does not mean the ponderings of the scientist on his own thoughts and thought processes. It refers rather to our ability to reflect on our own scientific practices in the same empirical way as we reflect on the practices of the people we study (Zdeněk Konopásek). We can study ourselves together with the people whose practices we try to understand and interpret. There is no second order knowledge that would be pure reflection. We are a part of the world we study and our activities change that same world (Anthony Giddens). We are part of our field.

It is thus clear that a/symmetry points to issues surrounding the power of the scientific ordering of reality as well as to the problems of dominance. Within this framework, adopting a symmetrical approach does not mean being exactly values-free or dispassionate. It “invariably subverts the dominant view and strengthens the side of the weak and the marginal (...). [It is a] way of siding with the oppressed” (Dick Pells). Knowledge cannot be impartial; nevertheless, with the symmetrical approach, one seeks to include the weaker voices that would otherwise be easily overheard. An endeavour to enact the symmetrical approach thus has much to do with the wish not to do harm and to respect the diversity, heterogeneity, complexity and instability of social life.

The academic study of religions represents, for the most part, an exercise in asymmetry. Neglecting the voices of women and favouring men’s worlds; preferring the voices of experts over those of lay participants, of elites over ordinary folk; siding with the winners against the losers (e.g. through concepts such as heresy) are all important features of the tradition of the discipline. Often it sides with strong parties in controversies instead of studying the course and outcomes of such controversies, and their implications and significance for actual cultural practices. Moreover, a significant tendency towards asymmetry lies in the dominance over the studied “subjects” (especially – but not exclusively – colonial) facilitated by the promotion of the concept of religion itself.

As this brief overview indicates, to practice (the) social scientific study (of religions) as a symmetrical endeavour is a difficult task. Yet we think that it is not only worth trying, but that it has already been undertaken, however rarely. Consequently, the aim of this workshop is to promote, elaborate and share ideas and examples of good practice with respect to the symmetrical approach in (the) social scientific study (of religions). We therefore invite presentations on topics such as:

  • Overviews of particular research projects based on the symmetrical approach, or those that respect the principle of symmetry in their design and realization, as well as expositions of their methodologies and theoretical foundations.
  • Reflections on a/symmetries embedded in field research and in the writing of reports and papers based on field data; presentations of difficulties in writing symmetrical accounts and strategies for dealing with them.
  • Reflections on a/symmetries embedded in the writing of historical accounts/studies and strategies for writing histories symmetrically.
  • Theoretical reflections on problems associated with a/symmetries in the social sciences, especially in the study of religions, and proposals for symmetrical paths to follow.
  • Reflexivity and its consequences for conducting research and writing reports. How does respect for the principle of reflexivity shape our research and writing strategies? How can reflexivity be practiced and how can we write reflexively?

We invite students of religions, qualitative sociologists, anthropologists, and historians to exchange ideas and scholarly experience at this workshop on the symmetrical approach held in Brno, Czech Republic.

All interested scholars and students should submit their proposals for papers by 14 October 2012 using the workshop’s online registration form.

  • The conference fee is 50 EUR. The students pay the reduced fee 25 EUR.
  • The workshop language is English.
  • Proposals for papers (including abstracts no longer than 1800 characters including spaces) are to be submitted via the registration form.
  • Each paper will be given 20 minutes + 10 minutes for the discussion.
  • There is also the possibility to present the paper in the form of a poster. The poster format should be A0 or smaller. Due to technological limitations of our equipment we would like to advise the participants to create their posters in portrait mode (i.e., avoid the landscape orientation).
  • You will find all important dates (including the deadlines for the submission of abstracts) on the main page.

If you have any questions, please contact Ms. Lucie Čechovská via the workshop’s e-mail,

We look forward to seeing you in Brno!


On behalf of the organizing committee
Yours sincerely,

Dr. Milan Fujda,
Department for the Study of Religions, Masaryk University, Brno

Dr. David ZbĂ­ral,
Czech Association for the Study of Religions, General Secretary