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.