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‘A force of nature’: Elaine Howard Ecklund makes her mark

Courtesy Jeff Fitlow

By Murtaza Kazmi     11/14/23 10:52pm

Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences, director of the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance, sociology professor — Elaine Howard Ecklund has many titles to her name. However, she said being this year’s president of the Religious Research Association — a position to which she was recently elected — is among the most meaningful.

“This is one of my favorite professional accomplishments of those I’ve been privileged enough to have,” Ecklund said. “This was a rare opportunity where my goals match the organization’s goals and so I felt like it was a really good fit.”

According to the organization’s website, the RRA is a representative of academic and religious professionals working at the intersection of research and practical religious activities. The organization, formally founded in 1951, holds annual meetings where members may encourage and communicate research about religion to any interested parties. 

Ecklund said she recently concluded leading one of the two annual meetings she will oversee as president where she helped develop new approaches to transmit research conclusions to religious leaders. 

“We put on a specialized track for them to talk about faith and religious discrimination in the workplace, racism and religion, religion and science and scientific understanding topics that we thought would benefit these leaders,” Ecklund said. “We got a really incredible response.”

Ecklund’s impact has not been seen just through her work with the RRA. Daanesh Jamal, who took Ecklund’s SOCI 314: Science at Risk in Spring 2022, said that Ecklund served as a model for how professors should teach. 

“When I imagine what a sociology professor ought to be like, I feel [Ecklund] is a good model for that,” Jamal, a Will Rice College senior, said. “She’s very good at breaking down complicated topics in a more digestible way and often wrapping them up in an anecdote that makes those facts memorable.”

Ecklund also said that another goal she has is to increase exposure and distribution for the RRA’s research journal, “Review of Religious Research.” 

“[The journal] is led by Patricia Snell Herzog, who was actually a postdoctoral fellow at Rice University years ago,” Ecklund said. “We’re excited about expanding the reach of the journal and making it much more accessible.” 

Jamal said Ecklund would educate in non-traditional ways. Her willingness to include personal anecdotes displayed a courage that reinforced coursework as content that has roots in real-world situations. 

“I appreciated her humanity. She wasn’t afraid to tell a story or an anecdote or something that might be considered not highbrow enough for a prestigious university,” Jamal said. “I appreciated that because it’s just not something in a textbook, it’s something that we can actually use in our lives to live it in a better way.” 

Ecklund’s colleagues have also corroborated the new RRA president’s track record. Jim Elliott, the chair of Rice’s Sociology Department, said that Ecklund has made her mark. 

“Everyone in Sociology is beyond impressed with Elaine on an ongoing basis,” Elliot wrote in an email to the Thresher. “In addition to her incredible scholarly accomplishments, which are numerous and still ascendant, she has been a real leader in developing our new Ph.D. program, mentoring junior faculty and contributing to the overall life and mission of our collective.” 

Elliott said that Ecklund’s demeanor and poise has been instrumental to the development of Rice’s sociology department. 

“We would not be where we are today without her wisdom, hard work and unwavering commitment to others,” Elliott said. “We are very proud to call her a sociologist and to see all that she is able to do in that role here, nationally and abroad. She’s a true force of nature.”  

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