Social Assimilation and Identity in Gods of the City by Robert Orsi
Religion as a social institution is considered one of the most influential agents in the society. As an institution, religion plays a vital role in altering or changing the way people behave and think. This is especially true in the case of immigrants and other people of different nationalism and race in the United States. Contemporary American society is a 'melting pot' for people who came from all kinds of societies and cultures. As the number of immigrants increased, cultures are brought and assimilated within the American society, where 'hybridization' of societies occurs.
Religion, indeed, is one aspect of culture that directly influences individual and collective thinking and behavior. For individuals trying to cope with a different kind of society, religion serves as 'relief' and social companion for the lone individual. Through religious activities, one can socially interact with other people, establishing common grounds and social contacts with each other. Thus, from being an individual experience, religion becomes collective, a social reality experienced by people believing and subsisting to the same kind of religion.
This point is expressed in Robert Orsi's Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape, a collection of essays that centers on religions of the world assimilated within the American society. Orsi's focus is the relationship of religion with the urban landscape, where physical and social space serves as the primary elements that influence the prevalence of a religion in a particular area. This essay provides a discussion of the themes mentioned above, centering on the theme of religion and the urban landscape in contemporary American society. The texts that follow focuses on four different sections of the book, discussing how physical and social spaces influence an individual and society's development of meaning of their social realities in the context of religion.
The first chapter of the book is comprised of essays that discuss the theme of formation of self-identity of the individual in the society through religion. This self-identity is shaped from meanings constructed by the individual, as s/he understands a social experience generated from a religious activity. Orsi provides an interesting case study of this phenomenon in the essay, "Migration as the Loss of Home," where social assimilation is synonymous with physical assimilation, or an individual's adaptation to a new environment.
The author uses the case of European immigrants in America to illustrate how social experiences are equated with the physical experience. 'Home' as European immigrants give meaning to the term, is an "organizational space" where two intersecting lines, the physical and social realities, becomes an individual's mental map to gauge his/her assimilation and familiarity with the society s/he lives in. The intersecting, vertical and horizontal lines pertain to "path leading upward to the sky and downward to the underworld" and "the traffic of the world, all the possible roads leading across the earth to other places," respectively (81). However, in the context of American society, these intersecting lines no longer existing, making the individual feel disoriented and confused about the role that s/he must assume in the society.
The phenomenon of social and physical disorientation is not only prevalent in the case of European immigrants, but also to people of other nationalities and races. Physical disorientation is influential to social disorientation because the former provides concrete evidence to the existence of an individual's identity, a religion with which the person can relate to. Social disorientation occurs as a result of lack of physical space to practice and conduct religious rituals and practices. Thus, the individual is 'lost' and perceives himself/herself as an insignificant or irrelevant member of the society. Thus, the lack of sufficient space to practice religion and experience it socially becomes a barrier to the assimilation of the individual to the American society.
The phenomenon of social disorientation is especially prevalent among Indian immigrants living in Washington D.C. The article written by Joanne Waghorne, entitled, "The Hindu Gods in a Split-Level World: the Sri Siva-Vishnu Temple in Suburban Washington, D.C.," illustrates how social disorientation, instead of instilling within the individual his/her native culture, results to acculturation, losing his/her self-identity to replace it with a new one. This theme is the main thrust of Chapter 2, where a new phenomenon, called the "upstairs/downstairs" phenomenon, is an expression of the Indian experience of social and physical orientation in the American urban landscape.
Waghorne defines the Upstairs/Downstairs phenomenon as more than "architectural space," but also a "stable social space" where "the founders of the Sri Siva-Vishnu Temple sought to create a Hindu family within the American world of family life and family values. American life has not been factored out; it has been invited in to rest right under the Hindu holy sanctums" (125). It is evident that in this case, Indian immigrants have made a distinction between the American and Indian cultures, considering that both can be conflicting or complementing to the social experiences of each individual in the community. Unlike the European experience in Chapter 1, assimilation is not a problem among Indians. Instead, what occurs is that since the physical experience influences to the development of a more concrete social experience of American culture, there occurs an acculturation of Indian culture among Indian immigrants. As Indians begin forming their self-identities in a new society, old, 'Indianized' self-identities are discarded. What happens is a weakening of the Indian social structure, most especially in terms of religious cohesiveness.
The concept of nationalism is also an inherent characteristic embedded in the identity and cultural (religious) formation of immigrants in America. In Chapter 3, religion is put in a bigger perspective, as Thomas Tweed relates politics with religion (culture) in his discourse on "diasporic nationalism" among Cuban immigrants in Miami. In this section of the book, the politics of religion is related in discussing how religion strengthens religion in Cuban communities, which are mainly composed of Catholic believers. Cuban nationalism, according to Tweed, is influenced by religion, where national identity in the urban setting is developed: "exiles map the landscape and history of the homeland onto the new urban environment through architecture and ritual. Through symbols at the shrine, the diaspora imaginatively constructs its collective identity and transports itself to the Cuba of memory and desire" (133).
The Cuban experience illustrates how physical space remains an essential factor in strengthening the social experience of societies, just like the "Cuban" model of communities constructed by Cubans living in Miami. While physical space becomes a constraint in Chapter 1, Chapter 3 illustrates physical space as advantageous to Cuban immigrants, using geographic similarities with their native country as one way to generate "shared meaning(s) of the architecture (sub-Cuban communities) and ritual (Cuban religion and nationalism)" (133).
The synonymous meanings pertained to urban space as religious space is concretely exemplified in Chapter 4 of the book, shown in the case of New Jersey apartments. The following descriptions provide a detailed look at the religious experiences of immigrants 'relived' in the context of American urbanism:
The corridor and every room are occupied by altars and representations of spirits. Most of the time, the men's orichas live in two ornate wood cabinets with glass doors (canastilleros) in the small additional room at the fondo de la casa (back of the house). More than twenty-five orichas live in this cramped shrine room, the permanent igbodun or cuarto de santo of the house. It is divided from the rest of the house by a curtain. This cuarto de santo becomes a consultation room when the traditional reed mat (Lueum' ate; Sp. estera) is spread upon the floor just inside the curtained threshold.
This passage concretely illustrates a typical home of Catholics in Christian nations, especially those situated in the South American region. In limited urban…