Judaic Studies, Program In
Phone: +1 401 863 2750
BA, MA, Ph.D. Anthropology
A cultural anthropologist, Brink-Danan studies the role of language and symbol in the maintenance of social groups. With regional specialization in Europe, she recently conducted ethnographic research among Jews in Turkey. Brink-Danan's current work in Britain explores how, through legal and other processes, we can investigate the way people talk about religion and secularism.
My first research project (2000-2003), funded by a Fulbright-Hayes grant and supported by a number of other granting agencies, involved a reevaluation of cosmopolitanism through the case of Turkish Jewry.
The findings of this research, in addition to being published in a number of journals and edited volumes in print and under review, are forthcoming with Indiana University Press (anticipated publication date of 2011) in the first English-language ethnographic monograph about Turkish Jewry, tentatively entitled "Inside Tolerance: Jewish Life in Turkey in the 21st Century." Drawing on ethnographic and archival research, this book takes an inside look at what it means to be tolerated in the 21st century, describing Jewish life in Istanbul in rich detail. In addition to offering a description of a little-studied Jewish population, this study offers a new understanding of cosmopolitanism that, counter to many popular theories, does not see cosmopolitanism as tied to public nomination, but rather as knowledge and management of difference. The manuscript was recently awarded a Cahnman Publication Subvention Grant from the Association for Jewish Studies (2009).
My current project, 'God is Not a Racist: Talking about Law, Religion and Secularism in Britain,' takes up the following question: Do secularists speak a different language than the pious? The apparent incommensurability of secular and pious language is regularly invoked as debates rage across Europe about church sex scandals, veils, religious courts, animal slaughter, minaret construction and blasphemous cartoons. In descriptions of multiculturalism's failure, one hears the refrain that secularists and pious folks belong to different cultures (or civilizations) that clash when their worldviews are "lost in translation." While scholars have challenged the cultural translation metaphor, it still persists in academia and on the street despite lack of empirical evidence to support its validity. The goal of this study is to train an ethnographic lens on the way people actually talk about secularism and religion. I hypothesize that multicultural society does not have a translation problem; rather, the "lost in translation" metaphor allows adversarial groups to cling to an ideology of miscommunication because they don't want to listen to other people's talk.
To test the "lost in translation" metaphor against the actual speech of cross-cultural communicators, I rely on sociolinguistic and ethnographic methods, exploring arenas in which secular and pious actors engage in enduring dialogue. As sites of secularist drama where representation and responsibility intersect, the court and the theatre provide us with ample linguistic material through which to chart the meanings of secularism (and piety).
I begin by reexamining legal decisions from four recent Supreme Court cases concerning religion (Catholic agencies and gay adoption, Jewish schools' admissions criteria, Muslim veiling and Hindu cremations). Following a tradition of critical discourse analysis, I consider these transcripts evidence of collaborative linguistic and social relationships between actors and institutions. The project's ethnographic analysis records talk by British stakes-holders in the religion-secularism question outside of court. Selected because of their demonstrated cross-genre communication, sites for participant-observation in London include: an advocacy group fighting European religious tribunals; meetings of an interfaith group; tribunal play performances (and post-show "talkbacks") and lectures on religion and theatre hosted by major British theatre company. Unlike European countries with an explicit commitment to laïcité, Britain, with "[ ] relaxed and fumbling accommodations" to the separation of Church and state (Taylor in Michalski 2006), is an ideal site for this study.
Studying religious/secular communication styles allows us to better understand powerful ideas about what "talk" is for in multicultural society (Katriel 2004). Anthropology offers this project tools to chart talk about secularism and religion, but a methodological focus on how Britons talk -in court and onstage- has important implications beyond pure linguistic analysis; it can offer ethnographic evidence of the role Europe's citizens attribute to religion and secularism in today's multicultural states.
My courses look anthropologically at language and culture and draw upon my fieldwork among Jewish communities.
As part of the Judaic Studies faculty, three of my courses normally deal with global Jewish cultures. My anthropology affiliation allows me to teach my subspecialty in linguistic anthropology. Currently I teach the following three classes: Studying Jewish Life: Anthropological Perspectives, Israeli Society and Sounds and Symbols: Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology (see full descriptions below). Beginning next year, I will offer a class which deals specifically with the Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewish diasporas.