As I’ve worked through my dissertation, which frequently deals with fuzzy second-level categories, I keep coming across a common problem: So much scholarship seems to have an exceedingly difficult time handling the concept of decentralized but common identity. We have categories for (essentialist) top-down hierarchies and their opposite, seemingly infinite diversity (e.g., the propensity to pluralize everything: “Judaisms,” “Christianities”). But we have a devil of a time trying to handle groups and individuals that share a common group identity without centralized authority or governance.
It all too often seems to be an either-or proposition: Either unity or diversity, monolith or chaos. Essentialism or elimination of categories altogether.
Much of this seems to tie to our difficulties with hybridity in general, and to a degree there seems to be no escaping the struggle between these two poles since any scholarly endeavor—or any communication in general—necessarily involves over-simplification and categorization that imperfectly maps the territory in view. The image is always less than the thing itself.
The bigger problem comes when we as scholars stake out territory on the map and somehow miss, for example, that although early Judaism was characterized by broad diversity, early Jews and their neighbors could still generally (and remarkably easily) distinguish Jews as a category. Yes, the boundaries were sometimes fuzzy or fluid in individual cases or in periods of schism, but the fact is that Jewish groups existed and generally had a sense of kinship with one another—despite the absence of any real centralized authority, at least in the diaspora (especially after the destruction of the Temple). Christian groups have worked like this from the beginning as well (and no wonder, given Christianity’s origins).
In many respects, these problems with decentralized groups and categorization are also reflected in the West’s difficulty handling decentralized groups like al Qaeda. These groups don’t fit into neat Western nation-state boxes, but there is a loose unity that binds them together. It’s tricky to navigate in second-order work, but clear scholarship absolutely must be able to take account of hybridity and decentralized but unified group identity. We also need to do a better job developing a shorthand for this complex relationship, as the constant and at present necessary presentation of caveats and qualifications as often obfuscates as clarifies—and also makes it nearly impossible to write with real clarity.