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Towards an Ontology of Social Relations in the Study of Gender and Religion

Pierre Bourdieu's work on gender does not suggest itself automatically as a useful framework for studying the intersection of religion, gender and sexuality. Indeed, there is a wealth of theoretical approaches by gender scholars who may be better suited to the task. However, I believe that Bourdieu's theory of masculine domination and his general approach to analysing power relations can help us understand the possibility of change in the gender order, as well as the reasons for its relative durability and rigidity. For this to happen, however, every historical period needs to be examined separately to establish 'the system of agents, and institutions - family, church, state, educational system, etc., which, with different weights and different means at different times, have helped to remove the relations of masculine domination more or less completely from history' (Bourdieu 2001: 83).

The late modern world is complex and women are both objects and subjects who participate in the political struggle. This is why Bourdieu's theory of practice constitutes a fruitful approach to studying gender relations in religious fields. Moving away from the habitus to collectively created practices and agency of female, male (and other) virtuosi goes some way to produce a more convincing and all-encompassing account of gender and religion in late modernity. Habitus can be understood as transcending the individual/structure dualism but only in the sense that individuals are active in the world where structure refers to nothing more than the historically positioned interactions between groups of individuals in possession of various amounts of capital, competing in fields of social life where symbolic violence is exercised but also resisted and challenged. Curiously, Bourdieu finishes Masculine Domination with a utopian postscript on love as a liberating force from oppression and extreme individualism. He posits love as the exception 'to the law of masculine domination' (Bourdieu 2001: 109) and a salvation of sorts for both the dominant and the dominated. Engaging in the act of loving requires both individuals to eschew the relationship of domination and come together in 'an act of free alienation that is definitely asserted' through uttering 'I love you' (Bourdieu 2001: 112). This postscript could be read as patronising and utopian because Bourdieu ignores the fact that 'being in love' itself is never a neutral act that happens outside dominant discourses and scripts on intimate relationships. On the other hand, the passage also points to the universal human potential for collective creation of the Durkheimian 'soul' and subsequent re-definition of situations individuals find themselves in. The task of researching the intersection of gender, sexuality and religion poses a number of difficulties because all elements continuously shift internally and in relation to one another in a manner of images in a kaleidoscope. In order to produce a most complete and balanced account of such shifts, we must pay attention to the sum of historical interactions between the parts, instead of assuming a reified structure that rules over and determines all of them.

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