Belonging, Difference and Research Method

August 12-22, Toronto, Canada

The University of Toronto’s Connaught Summer Institute on Islamic Studies is a three-year collaboration between the Faculty of Law and Emmanuel College to support graduate research and forge new ground in the study of Islam.

“I feel that the site visits were really the heart and soul of this Institute—encounter[ing] people and communities that may be seriously affected by how we decide to teach or contribute to Islamic Studies.”
(Fellow, 2013)

The institute brought faculty and graduate students together to scrutinize how the subjects that fall under the various labels of “Islamic Studies” or “Muslim Studies” are framed. The use of the passive voice in the previous sentence is deliberate. Framing implies boundaries. Boundaries imply an inside and an outside or, more explicitly, inclusion and exclusion. To examine the conditions of framing is to bring into focus how features of inclusion, exclusion, belonging, and difference contribute to the ways in which researchers both define the research subject and relate to it. Embedding ourselves in the city of Toronto, we examined how difference and belonging complicates this definition of and relationship to the research subject in the area of Islamic studies. By the end of the institute, fellows were more keenly aware of the epistemic conditions that pertain to any research endeavor than when they first arrived. Moreover, they left empowered with new and innovative approaches that they can bring to the study of Islam in the 21st century.

The pedagogy of the Summer Institute on Islamic Studies embedded the participants in the different, and at times contested, Muslim collectivities in greater Toronto. As a result, we were able to reflect upon the complex epistemic conditions that make a research question intelligible, and the answer to that question possible. The pedagogy was designed to enhance reflection on the way we know, and thereby how we go about researching. Certainly, one way that we claim to know is through the intellect: we read, examine, and critique sources using our reason and analytic skills. But that form of knowledge does not exist in a vacuum. We are not merely rational autonomous monads. We often have our own collective commitments that we bring to bear (whether rationally, affectively, or otherwise) upon how we understand and determine the research subject, or how we pursue the research endeavor. But that begs the question whether, in doing so, we use those collectivities as frames—to define an inside and outside, to include and exclude—and thereby influence and affect our research design. The Summer Institute on Islamic Studies purposely explored the relationship between the researcher and research within the context of Toronto, home to a wide diversity of Muslim identities and communities.