sociology of religion:

Institutional parochialism and the sociology of religion

posted by Stephen C. Poulson

Recently, Levitt, Bender, Cadge and Smilde have argued that scholarship in the sociology of religion might become less “parochial” and less “Christo-centric.” I am skeptical of both of these assertions. In fact, I recently published (with Colin Campbell) an article in the March issue of The American Sociologist, “Isomorphism, Institutional Parochialism and the Sociology of Religion,” which asserts that the sociology of religion is marked by a considerable amount of institutional parochialism.

I consider institutional parochialism as a tendency for scholars to study people in their own societies, or to study people with whom they share a cultural affinity. To be clear, I do not think that institutional parochialism is a condition specific to the sociology of religion. Institutional parochialism is a normative condition that is evident in many academic fields. In fact, it is likely that the sociology of religion is actually “more worldly” when compared to other sociological sub-disciplines. So, while many in the sociology of religion likely study Christianity because they have an affinity with the faith, I assume that similar trends (e.g., people studying people like themselves) exist in many other sub-disciplines.

The “Institutional Parochialism” study investigated the content of two journals, Sociology of Religion and The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (JSSR) from 2001-2008. Particular attention was paid to whether content changed in response to the 9-11 attacks and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It was assumed that interest in the Muslim Middle East had increased generally, and I wondered whether scholars within the sociology of religion would respond by producing more work associated with this area of the world.

I was aware of past criticisms concerning the insular nature of the sociology of religion, but the field was selected for study primarily due to its disciplinary focus. In effect, a sub-discipline that focused on religion seemed the most “logical” choice available to investigate whether a field could “pivot” and devote more attention to Muslim societies following the 9-11 attacks.

The study did demonstrate that scholars in the sociology of religion remain preoccupied with the Western Christian experience. For example, of the 409 articles published that explicitly studied aspects of a religious faith or a religious community, 82 percent (n = 335) included the study of Christian communities. Of these, 90 percent (n = 302) included the study of Western Christian communities. These rates are very similar to those reported in Smilde and May’s working paper.

There was no significant change in the study of Muslim communities during the time period investigated. Overall, 9.8 percent (n = 40) of the articles on faith communities included study of a Muslim community. Of these, 35 percent (n = 14) were non-comparative studies of a Muslim community that resided outside the West. More studies—nearly half of the total (n = 18)—investigated Muslim communities that resided in the West. Often, the substantive discussion of Islam in these articles, as compared to discussions of other faiths in the same article, was cursory.

Islam, while understudied, was the third most studied faith, behind Christianity and Judaism. The people of the Middle East were studied more often than some others, but this was because Israeli society was well represented. The most understudied region was Sub-Saharan Africa, in which there were only three non-comparative studies of a faith community published from 2001-2008. This represents less than 1 percent of all studies published during this period.

Notably, for much of the period studied, there was an explicit call by the editors and supporters of Sociology of Religion to diversify journal content. In this regard, Nancy Nason-Clark, the editor of Sociology of Religion for five of the years studied, actively encouraged “submissions that would enable our journal to reflect diversity across gender, ethnic, cultural, religious and career lines.” And there was evidence that the content of Sociology of Religion did become more diverse. The most notable difference was that Sociology of Religion was far more likely to include articles that employed feminist perspectives when compared to JSSR. Of course, as Rhys Williams, editor of JSSR for much of the period we studied, has pointed out in his recent post, the content of these journals are “social products” that the field, not the editors, produce. Indeed, Williams expressed some frustration with the “pro-religious” orientation of many of the papers he received during his editorship at JSSR.

Importantly, the content of both journals did change to reflect ongoing religious debates that were taking place in the West. For example, studies related to religion and homosexualities were published with significantly higher frequencies in both journals during 2001 and 2002 and were clearly related to topical issues being debated in the West at that time.

So what accounts for the changes that were made, and not made, in content areas within the sociology of religion? I believe that DiMaggio and Powell’s concept of “institutional isomorphism” best explains these patterns. Generally, normative isomorphic pressures tend to prevent change. This pressure is often tied to the professionalization process, which sets standards for membership in an academic community. For example, normative pressures are built into the acquisition of academic credentials, the graduate training process, and the requirements established for career advancement.

Related to these pressures would be the structural reasons why academics neglect other areas of the world. Most obviously, Western researchers have greater access to Western communities. Moreover, particularly as it relates to quantitative data, there are far more data collected in the West than in the global South. Still, if the study of Islam were normative within the sub-field, then greater resources would be devoted toward collecting data on Muslim communities throughout the world. Currently, there appears to be little normative pressure on scholars within the sociology of religion to study Islam.

But scholarship associated with the sociology of religion will change. For example, DiMaggio and Powell assert that fields often change in response to “mimetic” pressure. In this regard, when members are unsure of an organization’s future or legitimacy, they often imitate or mimic other organizations viewed as more successful and legitimate. So, perhaps because the study of gender is increasingly normative in all sub-fields of sociology, there is increased pressure on some within the sociology of religion to produce or accept work informed by feminist perspectives.

Smilde and May, in their working paper, offer compelling evidence that the sociology of religion—far from being marginalized by the broader field—has actually developed a program in which scholars have been successful in placing work in prominent journals. Generally, I see no reason why a “strong” program can not simultaneously be a “parochial” one. Indeed, the programs most associated with the sociology of religion may be successful, in terms of support from the larger field, because they are parochial. For example, a “narrow” program—both in terms of the questions asked and the areas studied—could focus the attention of an academic community and may also maintain or increase group cohesion. This might help explain why scholars within the sub-field have been successful at having their work placed in pre-eminent journals.

Some of Smilde and May’s findings indicate that there are normative isomorphic pressures within the sociology of religion that could cause the field to remain parochial into the future. In particular, if scholars in the field have considerable financial support for their programs then there is likely little institutional pressure on them—or the people they are training—to broaden the nature of their inquiries to other regions of the world.

I personally agree that a more diverse program of study—one that includes more non-Western groups and non-Western faiths—would create a more interesting and complete body of work within the sociology of religion. Moreover, one sign that this may be possible is the ongoing discussion at The Immanent Frame, which could represent a form of mimetic isomorphic pressure that, if supported by others, would substantively change the scholarship being produced in the field. The contributors to the discussion are clearly an accomplished group with an extraordinary diversity of interests. Hopefully, others in the sub-discipline will appreciate and respond positively to this call to broaden inquiries associated with the sociology of religion.

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2 Responses to “Institutional parochialism and the sociology of religion”

  1. avatar David Smilde says:

    I would like to thank Stephen C. Poulson for his perspicacious engagement of the Levitt, Bender, Cadge and Smilde post as well as the Smilde and May working paper. I think he is right to be skeptical of the claim that the sociology of religion might become less parochial and less Christo-centric. In the “Religion on the Edge” initiative I have been working on with Bender, Cadge and Levitt over the past couple of years, we see the issues we are highlighting as “models of and models for.” Some, such as the growing “critical engagement” of religious practices—the possibility of openly talking about both positive and negative elements of the religious practices we study, rather than simply maintaining scientific neutrality or exclusively focusing on the positive—are clearly “models of.” Our data show an increase and diversification in socio-evaluative engagements (see Smilde and May Figure 3). Others, such as the move beyond parochialism and Christo-centrism, are clearly “models for,” insofar as the data show no diversification, and perhaps even increased concentration on the traditional subject matter of US sociology of religion: the US, Christianity and, more specifically, Protestantism (see Smilde and May Figure 4). I think in the Levitt et al. post we didn’t quite capture this nuance in how we phrased the “trends” we described. These are all trends. But they are not all majority or even upward trends.

    I would also agree with Poulson’s assertion that a “strong program” could simultaneously be a “parochial” one. In fact, in the Smilde and May working paper, in the section called “Interrogating the Strong Program” (pp.8-10 ) we suggest the relationship might even be causal. There we suggest that “while a move away from reductionist portrayals of religion towards a thicker concept of culture could enrich our understanding, it could also lead to an enthnocentrism that would hinder it” (9) and that the growth of a strong program and pro-religiousness could well “promote an increasing thematic concentration on the traditional foci of Christianity—especially Protestant Christianity—and the United States” (11). I think there is room for debate on these issues, but that is our current analytic direction in this work in progress. We could also speculate that the only modest growth of articles on religion in sociology journals at a time in which there has apparently been a surge in public interest in religion (see Smilde and May Figure 1) could be a result of continuing parochialism and Christo-centrism at a time when scholarly and public interests are diversifying. This assertion goes beyond our data but it is important to think about whether sociologists of religion are providing the scholarship that the public and the larger discipline want.

    Finally, I agree with Poulson’s final paragraph, which qualifies the power of institutional isomorphism. As decades of social movements scholarship would suggest, the conservative isomorphic pressures of institutions are powerful, but not impenetrable. In the Religion on the Edge initiative, we see ourselves stitching together the frayed edge of the sub-discipline where there are numerous sociologist of religion studying non-traditional topics and numerous sociologists from other sub-disciplines who have begun to study religion. By bringing them together to have broader discussions about the sub-discipline, we hope to diversify its core. Forums such as The Immanent Frame are key resources in this effort.

  2. avatar Rachel Rinaldo says:

    As a sociologist who studies the “Muslim world,” I am very glad to hear Poulson voice concern about the lack of attention to Islam in the sociology of religion (and we should extend this concern to sociology more generally). There are indeed scholars who are studying Muslims, but many, including myself, began their research after 9/11, and have not yet published much. I’m in my first year as an assistant professor, and I have already come across graduate students who are interested in studying Muslims in the U.S. So, I think the research is coming, but given the length of graduate training and the long-term requirements of field research, it may take a few more years for the publications to pick up. Finally, Poulson mentions how other sociological sub-fields such as gender have become institutionalized. In fact, one of the best places to look for innovative studies of religion and social change is in gender. Gender & Society and Signs have published quite a few articles on religion in recent years, many of them involving international research and addressing classic sociological concerns about modernity, agency, and identities.

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