Progress in Human Geography: Grounded Theologies: ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in human geography

As I noted in the previous post, I am excited to announce the publication of two articles today.  This post deals with the second one.

Progress in Human Geography, a widely-read journal where geographers publish reviews of current geographical research that point to new agendas for study, has published a piece that I contributed to them. It is available on OnlineFirst. It is titled ‘Grounded theologies: ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in human geography.‘ Again, I will post again when a print issue comes out.

This is a theoretical paper that deals with how ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’ should be studied in human geography.  I’ve had a long interest in examining these concepts more deeply, and I’m still interested in going deeper.  In 2007, when I began my master’s degree in geography at the University of British Columbia, I had to take an introductory course called Geography 520: Theory and Practice in Human Geography (here’s a sample syllabus, taken from 2011).  One of our assignments for that seminar was to write a short, 3,000 word essay modeled on Progress in Human Geography‘s review style. As I recall, we were told to review some 30 recent articles and books. I told our seminar instructors that I wanted to do a review essay on geographies of religion. They replied with something to the effect of: ‘Oh, let us know if you can find anything.’

In many ways, this is my way of saying: ‘I found something.’  I began developing these ideas more fully after that introductory course, which then culminated into my master’s thesis on Chinese churches in Vancouver. As I began my doctoral work, I began to toy with the idea of ‘grounded theologies’ in my directed studies courses, and I finally wrote about it in my comprehensive examinations on geographies of religion, secularism, and social theory.  That was when my supervisor, David Ley, encouraged me to develop this piece and put it into Progress in Human Geography, even as I was writing up my doctoral thesis proposal.

The reviews came back as I was conducting field work for my doctoral project. To my pleasant surprise, the editors and the reviewers were not only supportive, but extremely thorough, profound, and constructive, advising me on how to maximize my arguments for the best possible impact on the field. I then revised the paper, foregrounding the notion of ‘grounded theologies’ in human geography.

The paper is basically about how geographers should study ‘religion’ and the ‘secular.’ I began by engaging the work of Lily Kong, a cultural geographer and the Vice President at the National University of Singapore, who had suggested that geographers need to define what ‘religion’ is and is not.  I am an admirer of Lily’s work, as she has recently opened up many possibilities for us to study religion in geography. I was also struck by her corollary call to engage theology and religious studies more deeply. Engaging this literature, I found that ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ are very contested terms and that to define what religion is and is not would reinforce the binary idea that some spaces are religious and others aren’t.

The alternative path proposed in the piece is that of grounded theologies, ‘performative practices of place-making informed by understandings of the transcendent’ (p. 2).  While there has been a growing literature in geography on the possibilities of ‘post-secularism’ (in fact, Paul Cloke and Justin Beaumont have a piece on this in the most recent print issue of Progress), there have also been some complaints that this literature doesn’t take seriously what secularization actually means (especially by Justin Wilford, also in Progress). I propose that the way forward is to see ‘the secular’ as much as a grounded theology as ‘religion.’  After reviewing the relevant literature on ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in theology and religious studies, I demonstrate how this concept has already been put into practice by social, cultural, and political geographers.

In doing so, I had to engage with what is known as the ‘canon’ in religious studies (e.g. the foundational work of social scientists like Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, William James, and Clifford Geertz), formative debates among religion scholars about what ‘religion’ is (e.g. a critical juxtaposition of the work of Mircea Eliade and Wilfred Cantwell Smith, as well as more recent work by Jonathan Z. Smith), and the recent critical conversation on secularization that blurs the lines between theology and religious studies (e.g. the work of John Milbank, William T. Cavanaugh, Talal Asad, Judith Butler, Saba Mahmood, Brad Gregory, and Charles Taylor). I then put this literature to work by looking at how geographers have already been engaging to some degree with grounded theologies as they undertook studies of how different religious subjects understood their identities by intersecting their social spaces. I also looked at recent discussions in critical geopolitics surrounding religion, especially as geographers have been interested in the eschatological dimensions of religious engagements with the public sphere.

My hope for this paper is that it will open avenues for geographers to research ‘religion’ and the ‘secular,’ as well as engage with scholars in theology and religious studies. Moreover, my aim has been to critique the notion that ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ are mutually exclusive.  By doing this, we might be able to show ironically how people conventionally labeled ‘religious’ sometimes employ ‘secular’ ways of making place while people who call themselves ‘secular’ are guided by implicit theological narratives in their geographical practices.

I’d really like to thank David Ley for guiding me through this process, as well as the editors of Progress in Human Geography who oversaw this publication, Noel Castree and Anssi Paasi. The five anonymous reviewers who critically turned over every part of this piece have greatly strengthened this paper; I also feel extremely humbled that they have taken my work so seriously and have engaged it with such profound insights. Claire Dwyer, with whom I am working concretely on a project dealing with grounded theologies in Richmond, British Columbia’s ‘Highway to Heaven,’ has also been very encouraging. My friends, Robert Edwards and Carl Hildebrand, also read the piece and offered very constructive thoughts. I am very thankful that this piece is out, and I look forward to engaging fellow students of ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ on how these concepts describe grounded theologies put to work in the making and contestation of real places in the world.

Homo Religiosus? Religion and Immigrant Subjectivities (co-authored with David Ley), in Religion and Place: landscape, politics, piety (eds. Peter Hopkins, Lily Kong, and Elizabeth Olson)

I just received my copy of Religion and Place: landscape, politics, piety put out by Springer and set for a 2013 release date.  It’s edited by my friends, Peter Hopkins (Newcastle University, Geography), Lily Kong (National University of Singapore, Geography), and Betsy Olson (University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, Geography), and it’s got a great line-up of geographers of religion contributing in its various chapters, including Banu Gokariksel, Anna Secor, Sarah Moser, Nimrod Luz, Lynn Staeheli, Caroline Nagel, Barbara Bompani, Giselle Vincett, David Conradson, and Julian Holloway.

My supervisor, David Ley (University of British Columbia, Geography), and I co-authored a chapter entitled Homo religiosus? Religion and immigrant subjectivities” based on Ley’s 2010 lecture for the Association of American Geographers’ Geography of Religions and Belief Systems annual lecture series.  I contributed a great deal of citations to make the chapter relevant to theology and religious studies (fields that Lily Kong [2010] has been pushing us to get involved in) as well as some empirical material on Chinese Canadian evangelicals, especially from my 2011 article on a Cantonese Christian congregation published in Population, Space, and Place.  Our chapter suggests that while there has been a great deal of interest in the relationship between religion and migration, little has been done from within the theological frameworks of religious migrant practitioners themselves. We attempt a thought-experiment with transnational Chinese migrants to Vancouver who attend Christian churches to examine their religious practices from an explicitly theological perspective.

One of the innovative elements of this book is its explicit openness to doing social science of religion from within theological frameworks, as can also be seen from Julian Holloway’s chapter.  To me, this raises questions about how human geographers do religious studies similarly and differently from their social science counterparts in sociology and anthropology.  The editors and the contributors are very excited about the release of this book, as it signals a growing interest within human geography in religion and the growing significance of various approaches to religious studies in the social sciences more generally.

*UPDATED* CFP: AAG 2013: Post-secular spaces; ORIGINAL: CFP: AAG 2013: Debating Secularization: Theory and Practice in Geographies of Religion

Betsy Olson (UNC Chapel Hill, Geography) and Banu Gokariksel (also UNC) have been in touch with me.  The themes set out in their CFP is so similar to mine that we might as well make it a joint effort.  I am now referring all interested persons in my original CFP to their paper session.  Here it is:

AAG Annual Meeting, Los Angeles, April 9-13, 2013
Post-secular spaces: geographical explorations beyond secular theory and research

The aim of this paper session is to explore the parameters of post-secular research and theory in Geography. From Habermas to Asad to Butler, post-secular theories and approaches unsettle previously taken-for-granted relationships between religion, the state, and society.  The challenge posed by post-secular theory is not to study religion more, or to study religion in isolation, but rather to re-view moments, meanings and events without the assumptions of secularization theory – that is, without assuming that religious practices, values and institutions have been historically or contemporarily irrelevant or marginalized in the functioning of ‘modern’ societies. As a critique of secularization theory, post-secular approaches encourage us to uncover and analyze the lingering and overt presence of religion in our social interactions, our economies, and in the everyday and exceptional practice of politics. Less clear in these broader debates (and, arguably, within geographical scholarship on the topic) is the relevance of space and spatial theory in either the theoretical development or empirical analysis of post-secular approaches.

Our hope with this paper session is to begin consolidating and synthesizing the spatial concerns of post-secular theory by exploring emerging empirical research on new (and old) interrelationships between religion, society, politics, and economy. We would especially encourage contributions from scholars who don’t consider religion to be their central interest, but have perhaps been trying to explain religious influence upon economic, social or political practices. Papers might therefore be either historical or contemporary studies, and could address themes such as:

·      Religion and technologies of communication
·      Geopolitics in the secular age
·      Class and religion
·      Spirituality in social movements
·      Religion, labor and rights
·      Environmental ethics and spirituality
·      Law, secularism, and religion
·      Piety, embodiment, and the body
·      Secularism and public space
·      Religion and the economy
·      Feminism and the secular critique
·      Popular culture and religion

Please send your abstract of no more than 250 words to Betsy Olson ( and Banu Gökarıksel ( )

Debating Secularization: Theory and Practice in Geographies of Religion
Sponsored by the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Specialty Group
AAG 2013: Call for Papers

Recent work in geographies of religion has suggested a need for the tenets of the subfield to be debated.  Lily Kong (2010) argues, for example, that not enough work has been done to examine the theological and metaphysical aspects of geographies of religion and to engage the interdisciplinary enterprise of religious studies.  An emerging topic of debate is secularization and whether or not emerging geographies of religion can be seen as post-secular spaces.  While Beaumont and Baker (2010) argue that cities with new configurations of faith-based organizations are developing new post-secular approaches to social activism, Kong (2010) cautions against this idea for its over-emphasis on European phenomena.  On the other hand, Justin Wilford (2011) argues that religious phenomena, while significant, need to be conceptualized as ‘sacred archipelagoes’ in a sea of secularity, for secularization has in fact affected all facets of modern religious practice.  The theoretical underpinnings of geographies of religion and its requisite attachments to the secularization thesis are thus currently under debate.

This session calls for papers that examine the theory and practice in geographies of religion in light of these debates.  Papers that will be submitted do not necessarily need to be completely theory-oriented papers; indeed, empirical studies that contribute to these theoretical debates, as well as papers that deal with theological and metaphysical issues, will both be strongly considered.  Suggested topics include:

  • Geographical studies that either support or refute the secularization thesis
  • Theological and metaphysical treatments of religious themes in geography
  • Post-secular cities
  • Faith-based organizations and their treatment of religion and the secular
  • Geographies of religious migration, with a theoretical treatment of religion and the secular
  • Interfaith geographies as religious, secular, or post-secular phenomena
  • Positionality in the theory and practice of geographies of religion
  • Religious geopolitics as religious, secular, or post-secular phenomena
  • Non-European geographies of religion and their relation to secular geographies
  • Feminist approaches to geographies of religion and the secularization thesis

Papers should be submitted to Justin K.H. Tse at no latter than October 20, 2012 for submission to the AAG.

Comprehensive Exams, 17-21 January 2011

Since 20 October 2010, I have been reading for comprehensive exams.

The PhD in Human Geography at the University of British Columbia requires three exams to be written in the second year of the PhD.  These three exams address three broad fields that will be addressed in the dissertation and that can serve as broad teaching areas for a future career in academia.

My exams are set for 17-21 January 2011.  I sit one exam for each of 17, 19, and 21 January.  These are written, take-home exams where I have to answer two questions about a broad field in human geography; the normal length of each answer is a 7-10 page literature review.  On the following week, I also sit a three-hour oral exam with my doctoral comprehensive exam committee.  Currently, my doctoral committee consists of: David Ley (UBC Geography), David Edgington (UBC Geography), Henry Yu (UBC History), and Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography).

The rumour has gone around UBC that the Geography exams are among the most difficult in the Faculty of Graduate Studies.  I cannot confirm the truth of this rumour, but what I can say is that it is simultaneously difficult and rewarding.  The aim of these exams is to give a broad understanding of the field and to invite interdisciplinary approaches to the subject matter (which only goes to show how interdisciplinary Geography is as a discipline!).

The three fields I will sit are as follows:


  • “Old” and “New” Cultural Geographies of Religion (the “old” refers to the Berkeley school of cultural geography led by Carl Sauer, the “new” to Jim Duncan’s turn toward process in the politics of placemaking)
  • Theories of religion
  • Anthropological and sociological approaches to religion
  • Political constructions of secularity
  • Islam and the West: liberal, feminist, and ethnographic approaches
  • Religion and transnational migration
  • Congregational studies (i.e. R. Stephen Warner’s “new paradigm”)

Major thinkers I address in this list include a diverse range: Wilbur Zelinsky, David E. Sopher, Lily Kong, Reinhard Henkel, Peter E. Hopkins, David Ley, Claire Dwyer, Kevin Dunn, Banu Gokariksel, Philip Kelly, Paul Bramadat, R. Stephen Warner, Helen Rose Ebaugh, Janet Chafetz, Peggy Levitt, Steven Vertovec, Peter Berger, Harvey Cox, Emile Durkheim, Mircea Eliade, Clifford Geertz, William James, Rudolf Otto, Karl Marx, Rodney Stark, Max Weber, Talal Asad, Jose Casanova, Michel Foucault, Jurgen Habermas, Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, and Charles Taylor.

While religion is the major focus of the list, such a diversity of sources also enables a broader address of the following in future research and teaching:

  • social and cultural geography
  • intellectual histories of the social sciences
  • multiculturalism and migration studies


  • Theories of international migration
  • The “mobilities” paradigm (John Urry)
  • Multicultural theory and policy
  • Labour migrations
  • Transnational migration studies
  • Second-generation issues
  • Asian American studies
  • Race theory and race studies
  • Asian Canadian studies
  • Pacific Rim studies

Major thinkers I address include: Stephen Castles, Mark J. Miller, Catherine Bretell, James Frank Hollifield, Nancy Foner, John Urry, Ghassan Hage, Robert Putnam, Brenda Yeoh, Katie Willis, Christian Joppke, David Ley, Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch, Christina Szanton Blanc, Elaine Ho, Peggy Levitt, Mary C. Waters, Aihwa Ong, Ien Ang, Laurence Ma, Carolyn Cartier, Ronald Takaki, Glenn Omatsu, Sucheng Chan, Lisa Lowe, Jack Tchen, Robert G. Lee, Henry Yu, Helen Zia, Kay Anderson, Dorothy Fujita-Rony, Madeline Hsu, Alexander Saxton, Judy Yung, Peter Ward, Patricia Roy, Charles A. Price, Eiichiro Azuma, Carlos Bulosan, Yen Le Espiritu, Vijay Prashad, Chris Lee, and Peter Li.

While Pacific migrations and ethnicities are the major foci of the list, this list also enables me to address the following in future research and teaching:

  • Globalization theory
  • Citizenship in theory and practice
  • Global economics and geopolitics
  • Theories of social and cultural capital
  • Race and ethnic politics


  • Asian cities in global and regional contexts
  • Colonial and post-colonial cities
  • Global cities/world cities
  • Pacific Rim studies
  • Cities and the welfare state in post-colonial Asia
  • Cities and the neoliberal state in post-colonial Asia
  • Convergence/divergence theory (e.g. Terry McGee’s desakota model)
  • Garden cities and urban utopias
  • Sustainable cities
  • Rural-urban relations and migrations
  • Labour in Asian cities
  • Urban development in Asia

Major thinkers I address are: Terry McGee, David Edgington, W.B. Kim, Anthony King, Fucheng Lo, Peter Marcotullio, Karen Y.P. Lai, Saskia Sassen, Brenda Yeoh, Fulong Wu, S.O. Park, Ryan Bishop, Abidin Kusno, Laurence Ma, Kris Olds, Manuel Castells, H.W. Dick, P.J. Rimmer, Michael Douglass, G.L. Ooi, John Gugler, Jonathan Rigg, Andrew Sorenson, and Dean Forbes.

Though the list focuses on Asian cities in particular, broader areas for future writing and teaching include:

  • Comparative Asian, North American, and European cities
  • Migrant labour
  • Pacific and Pacific Rim studies
  • Urban sustainability
  • Theories of “orientalism”
  • Colonial and post-colonial studies
  • State politics: welfare and neoliberal models

So now…it’s back to reading!  The labour is rewarding, the knowledge both intellectually stimulating and relevant to the contemporary situation.

CALL FOR PAPERS: Pacific Worlds in Motion III: Mobile Identities


Pacific Worlds in Motion: Mobile Identities
An Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference on Asian Migrations
St. John’s College
The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
June 2-5, 2010

We invite graduate students with an interest in trans-Pacific migration to attend and present a paper at a conference in Vancouver in June 2010. The conference focuses on the construction and maintenance of identities in the Pacific region from political, economic, and socio-cultural perspectives. Recent literature on nation-states, transnational networks, economic integration, and late capitalist logics of governmentality in the Pacific region have identified phenomena that are said to include rapid urbanization, the emergence of nationalisms, technological advances, increases in the speed of information, and the formation of transnational networks through migration and media. How has the emergence of such Pacific worlds in motion affected the construction, maintenance, and imagination of identities in the Pacific region? Have identities also become mobile in trans-Pacific worlds in motion? What kinds of political, economic, and social identities have emerged from such mobility, and how are they to be discussed? This four-day conference will include two days of papers and a day trip to Richmond, BC, a Chinese ethnoburb south of Vancouver that will serve as a local site to ground discussion on Pacific mobile identities. Our hope is to begin and continue a discussion on these Pacific identities in motion from a variety of perspectives as we seek to understand more fully our present experience of Pacific worlds in motion.

Some of the major issues that will be examined within the context of a Pacific world include:
• Racial identities
• Multicultural societies
• Gendered identities
• Globalization
• Community formations, inclusions, and exclusions
• Urban planning
• Identity formation in visual and performing arts
• Communications media
• Neoliberal governance
• Labour politics
• Political formations
• Religious movements and networks
• Transnational spaces

Pacific Worlds in Motion is sponsored by one of the University of British Columbia’s graduate residential colleges (St. John’s College). It aims to bring together graduate students and early career researchers from all disciplines pursuing research on Pacific Migrations. Preference will be given to those who have chosen topics that explicitly deal with questions and issues specifically pertaining to the issue of Pacific identities in motion. We hope that this conference will begin mentoring relationships among senior scholars, early career researchers, and graduate students.

Confirmed Plenary Speakers:
Lily Kong
, Professor of Geography, Vice President and Director of the Asian Research Institute at the National University of Singapore
Robbie Goh, Associate Professor of English Literature, Head of the Department, National University of Singapore

Abstract Submission Guideline
• One page abstract of your paper (max. 250 words)
• CV that includes email, telephone, and institutional affiliation
• Audiovisual needs

Submission Deadline: Friday, 22 January 2010

Conference E-mail: