sociology of religion:

A call for sustained epistemological work

posted by Manuel A. Vásquez

I welcome the timely efforts of Peggy Levitt, Courtney Bender, Wendy Cadge, and David Smilde to rethink the sociology of religion. In contrast to religious studies (my area of training) and anthropology, sociology has not undergone a sustained and systematic examination of its epistemological bases. In the case of anthropology, the undeniable links between the rise of the discipline, the colonial enterprise, and modern capitalism, together with the dramatic re-articulation of the local as a result of globalization’s dialectic of time-space compression and distanciation, have led to powerful critiques of the anthropological gaze. Here, one can readily think of the work of Johannes Fabian, George Marcus, James Clifford, and Arjun Appadurai. Similarly, in the field of religious studies, scholars such as Russell McCutcheon, Donald Wiebe, Tim Fitzgerald, David Chidester, and Tomoko Masuzawa have demonstrated the constructed and contingent nature of the category of religion and its implication in various forms of Orientalism and the subjectivation of indigenous populations. Moreover, their genealogical analyses of categories like world religions, the sacred, the holy, and homo religiosus have challenged the field to revise its modus operandi.

It is true that some of these deconstructionist and post-colonial critiques have taken matters to an extreme, generating unproductive and self-indulgent conversations that have very little to do with the challenges of studying specific (religious) discourses, practices, institutions, and landscapes as they are constituted and contested “on the ground.”  Nevertheless, these critiques have facilitated a fuller awareness of the inherent tensions and contradictions in anthropology and religious studies, clearing spaces for the emergence of approaches that are simultaneously more humble (in the sense of eschewing grand, ahistorical, and decontextualized concepts and generalizations) and more robust (in terms of rigor, attention to difference, hybridity, multiple determination, and multi-scalar embeddedness). Epistemological critiques have accompanied and re-enforced ethnographic, practice-oriented, spatial, and non-reductively materialist turns in religious studies.  These turns have enabled a revitalization of religious studies beyond the dominant Eliadean history of religions approach and its search for transhistorical archetypes. A case in point here is the lived religion school of Bob Orsi, Leigh Schmidt, Thomas Tweed, and others.

I would like to suggest that sociology, and particularly sociology of religion, can benefit greatly from a thorough examination of its epistemological bases. I say that sociology of religion would particularly benefit from this kind of revision because, just as Western modernity stabilized itself as a relatively unified and hegemonic “subject” against an exoticized, genderized, and racialized Oriental other through a denial of coevalness, so did sociology posit religion as its primitive, traditional, supernatural, enchanted, and sentimental other. This foundational process of otherization explains why the fathers of the discipline—Durkheim, Marx, Weber, and Simmel—were not only deeply interested in religion, but made the sociology of religion the epistemological point of departure for their theories of society. For them, religion was the “womb of civilization,” the source of our elementary collective representations, ideologies, and this-worldly or other-worldly dispositions. Marx summarizes the founding fathers’ thinking in this regard when he writes that religion is “the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its general basis of consolation and justification.”

Religion figures centrally in the founding fathers’ theories of social change, in their accounts of evolution from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity, or the dialectical struggle among classes and the deepening of the process of alienation, and in the increasing dynamics of rationalization and bureaucratization. However, as modern thinkers who were interested in explaining the “social by the social” (as Alain Touraine puts it) and did not wish to rely on revelation as the ground for legitimation, they had to mark a sharp difference from theology. Therefore, they approached religion with great ambivalence, granting it the power to shape worldviews and ethos, but also theorizing it as an anachronism, as a phenomenon bound to disappear or, at a minimum, to be drastically transformed—privatized or rationalized—by the juggernaut of modernity.

Given this attitude, it is not surprising that the dominant question in the sociology of religion has always been, “why does religion persist (or thrive) amidst (or despite) modernity?”  This is the burning question, not only for the old paradigm of secularization, but also for the New Paradigm and the religious market and rational choice approaches with which it is associated. But notice here that, even in the New Paradigm, the question carries a negative undercurrent: the presence or vitality of religion as the other of modernity always requires an explanation. This is a very curious attitude. Anthropologists are not in the habit of asking, “why does culture persist in the midst of modernity?” They might have raging debates about what culture is—a system of symbols, the knowledge and values of a particular people, power-laden clusters of practices, etc. Or they might be concerned with the vitality and fate of a particular indigenous culture confronted by colonialism, globalization, urbanization, or transnational immigration. But to think that the existence of culture, however it is constructed, is in need of explanation with the advent of modernity is counter-productive—it is a non-starter in the discipline. Rather, the task is how to study the cultures of modernity.

Professor Edgell is right that the key to a rethinking of sociology of religion lies in the careful examination and strategic dismantling of its modernist assumptions. In particular, while recognizing that the field is theoretically and methodologically diverse, it is necessary to identify and confront enduring foundational dualisms. These dualisms include those between modernity and tradition, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, reason and faith, the sacred and the profane, self and society, symbol and practice, idealism and materialism, and agency and structure. Modernist epistemologies not only depart from these Cartesian-Kantian dualisms, but also posit quasi-teleological schemes to bridge the movement from one side of each duality to the other. These quasi-teleological readings of change have militated against more context-sensitive analyses of social phenomena at various, overlapping spatial and temporal scales.

If I am reading it correctly, what distinguishes epistemologically the “religion on the edge” initiative called for by Levitt et al. is the effort to offer us a holistic, truly emplaced, and fully embodied sociology, while wisely resisting the nihilistic excesses of some of the postmodernist and post-colonial critiques. My sense is that the laudable proposals to go beyond congregations, beyond the Protestant-based stress on the individual, voluntarism, and bounded notions of affiliation and identity, as well as beyond methodological nationalism and its corollary of American exceptionalism, are all informed by a thicker understanding of identity and agency. Studying religion on the edge entails a view of individual and collective identities as shifting, but always relatively stabilized, emergent realities at the intersection of social, cultural, religious, neuro-somatic, and ecological networks. Because the task is to map out and study the varied, multi-scalar interplay of these networks—sometimes marked by clearly discernible causal chains and hierarchies, but at other times determined by non-linear logics—a re-invigorated sociology of religion must engage a multiplicity of disciplines, ranging from anthropology, religious studies, and cultural studies to geography, evolutionary psychology, and the neurosciences. The specific contribution of sociology would be to foreground social dynamics as the point of entry and explanatory purchase in inter-action with other processes.

Professor Edgell rightly points to a reworked and expanded notion of habitus as a promising building block in the “religion on the edge” initiative. As Talal Asad has noted, Marcel Mauss meant the notion of habitus and the accompanying concept of “techniques of the body” to serve as tools to understand society through a “triple viewpoint, that of the ‘total man,’” which focuses on “indissolubly mixed together” “physio-psycho-sociological assemblages of actions.” More recently, Bourdieu has enriched the notion of habitus through the concepts of social fields and multiple forms of capital. Nevertheless, in Bourdieu’s appropriation, the biological angle of Mauss’s triple viewpoint loses some of its sharpness. This is where emerging research in cultural neuro-phenomenology, especially on the relations of reciprocal determination among structured and structuring social, historical, and cultural contexts, the flexible architecture of the human brain, the sensory-motor apparatus, and ecological networks, can complement the move away from the disembodied, disembedded, sovereign, and fully transparent Cartesian subject that has haunted modernity, including sociology. Armed with a thicker, fully networked understanding of agency, we will gain new vistas into the complexities of religious experiences and practices.

I hope that the effort towards a new sociology of religion truly becomes an occasion for a thorough re-examination of the epistemological bases of the discipline, an opportunity to re-engage creatively the founding fathers and texts, to retrieve from them tools that continue to be useful, to enter into conversations with new domains of knowledge, and to move beyond the unproductive aporias that heretofore have shaped the field.

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One Response to “A call for sustained epistemological work”

  1. Manuel: you are correct to foreground the socio-biological in any recasting of the sociology of religion’s epistemology. Right now there are a number of writers in cultural geography who are helping this along by thinking about the complex web of performances that go to make up the religious. In particular, you may want to have a look at Lily Kong’s work in Asia but I see you are already with Talal Asad’s “indissolubly mixed together” way of looking at this. Just as anthropology is questioning its episteme, sociology’s needs a thorough reworking. Thank you for this great post.

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