Posts Tagged ‘social science’
The Western Regional Conference on Christianity and Literature will host its annual conference on The Religious Turn: Secular and Sacred Engagement in Literature and Theory at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA from May 15-17, 2014.
Harvard Divinity School is hosting its annual Ways of Knowing conference for graduate students and young scholars who are studying religion in all different programs and disciplines. The conference will be held at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, MA on October 25-26, 2013 (more details here). The deadline to submit papers is July 1, 2013.
A new book, Religion on the Edge: De-centering and Re-centering the Sociology of Religion, edited by TIF contributors Courtney Bender, Wendy Cadge, Peggy Levitt and David Smilde, has been published.
The Woodrow Wilson Foundation is currently accepting applications for the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship.
Over at Foreign Policy, anthropologist Scott Atran writes about the need for more social scientists to study how religion affects and underpins human behavior and thought; and not just simply how religion correlates with economic or political issues.
In a special session at the meetings of the American Academy of Religion on November 20, 2011, Robert Bellah discussed his new book, Religion in Human Evolution, with members of a distinguished panel.… Why was this event so special? It was not just the distinction of the members of the panel themselves, beginning with Bellah, arguably the country’s best known sociologist of religion and author of such seminal essays as “Civil Religion in America” and “Religious Evolution,” and groundbreaking books, including Habits of the Heart and Tokugawa Religion. Rather, the significance of the event lay in its recognition of the importance of the book’s project, a breathtaking survey of the whole sweep of the history of religiosity, which is nothing less than the history of humankind.
The Social Science Research Council recently announced the launch of a new project and grants program entitled “New Directions in the Study of Prayer.”
Tags: academia, anthropology, cognitive science, history, journalism, neuroscience, opportunities, philosophy, prayer, psychology, religion, religious studies, social science, sociology
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The Social Science Research Council has just announced the launch of a major new project and grants program entitled “New Directions in the Study of Prayer.”
Why I don’t read non-fiction from Barnes and Noble, and why that’s a problem for public scholarship; or, what I learned in third grade about epistemology and essentializationposted by Jeffrey Guhin
I have not been interested in the Barnes and Noble non-fiction section for a long time. There might be a few history books that catch my eye, or a few recent works of book-length journalism that show me how to do what I claim to do—which is ethnography—with an eye for detail, insight, and refreshingly clear prose. Yet most of the stuff that’s there—particularly in the social sciences section—is pretty basic, often uninteresting, and available for free (to me) in more rigorous form on JSTOR.
There’s something attractive about a neat typology, and also something we seem to loathe about the compartmentalization entailed. So what I want to do here is open up some more conversation on this ambivalence.
In the nineteenth century the new disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities were ‘emancipated’ from Christian theology. To an important extent these new forms of inquiry were connected to the rise of modern, industrial society and the nation-form. They were secular in nature—that is, they were part of a secularization of the mind and a de-clericalization of science and scholarship. The most important aspect of this transformation was, obviously, the study of religion itself. This is perhaps clearest in the development of a “science of religion,” an attempt to create a scientific study of religion without Christian theological suppositions. Its claim to scientific truth was based mainly on comparative linguistics and evolutionary theory. Religion was no longer left to Christian theologians but was now the province of anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and “scientists of religion.”
Striking changes are afoot in the way intellectuals address Christianity. Long seen as a largely Western tradition steadily losing its cultural influence in the West, Christianity has recently been re-installed at the center of debates that concern academic specialists and public intellectuals alike. In the last few years, it has suddenly become possible, maybe even fashionable, to ask whether Christianity might be a leading force of change in the contemporary world. Even more surprisingly, scholars who self-consciously stand outside what they think of as religious circles now find themselves promoting episodes in Christian history as key models for the way important social changes ought to occur.
The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation is currently fielding applications for the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship.
David Buckley’s recent post in Notes from the field raises a crucial methodological question. On what basis is comparative work to be done if the methods of comparison developed by the culture of reference (the analyst’s culture) are seen to be so deeply embedded in the ethos—that is, in many cases, a worldview with a clearly identifiable history of religion and secularization—of the culture of reference that these “methods of comparison” obviously fall under the umbrella of what is to be analyzed from the start, and hence to be differentiated from or likened to some other culture or cultures? If my perspective on what rational comparison amounts to cannot be shared by those in the situations I am comparing, then what does it mean to compare anything in such a context, since the “frame” I construct for the comparison could itself always already be just “my” frame, and hence something that would in turn require a larger “frame” (but whence would it come?) to be properly understood?
Scholars of religion (like, it seems, scholars of nearly everything animate and inanimate) have yet to decide if the world is full of repeated patterns awaiting discernment or replete with indiscriminate idiosyncrasy. Scholarship on this problem—the problem of comparison, of classification, of the role of the human sciences in their description—fills many an obscure treatise, treatises which rarely find their way to your local Barnes & Noble. And yet, there it is, and here it is, repeated in these posts about Courtney Bender’s new book, and repeated by her most incessantly idiosyncratic characters, her New Metaphysicals. Is the world as plural as every individual proposes (for themselves, to their observing scholar)? Or is the world as redundant as the survey answers format us to suggest? Which will it be: the sociology of well-considered wholes or the beloved humanity of our self-nominated smatterings?
“Shoveling fog” is Courtney Bender’s acute phrase for the work of “studying spirituality,” an amorphous term that has suffered much scorn and derision at the hands of both scholars and skeptics, nonplussed as they are by its conceptual vagueness and lack of clear social boundaries. While The New Metaphysicals does not tidy up the concepts or borders of spirituality, it goes a long way toward providing a new way of seeing its contours in the twenty-first-century United States, by zooming in on the present and past of metaphysical adepts in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Carefully attending to a network of metaphysical practices, which include past life regression, yoga, Reiki, out-of-body experiences, and a “mystical discussion group,” Bender finds that though these practices have a long and storied past in the salons, woods, and lecture halls of Cambridge, their contemporary practitioners are not really that interested in claiming, or even knowing about, such lineages.
Even the most open-minded social scientists—those who are up for studying almost any social group or activity—tend to find the kind of spiritual practitioners at the heart of Bender’s book hard to take. These practitioners, whom Bender refers to as “metaphysicals,” are given to individualistic self-understandings that run directly counter to how most social scientists think the world works, and their apparently free spirited way of hopping between institutions and borrowing liberally from all manner of religious and philosophical traditions makes it look as if they almost live the kinds of intensely self-focused and self-created lives that they proclaim they do.
The portraits social scientists create get appropriated by their subjects, used, and fed back to social scientists. Like a Cherokee Indian wearing a headdress to fulfill tourists’ stereotypes, respondents can make etic meanings emic when these meanings fit their purposes. This is precisely the “entanglement” that Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals masterfully addresses. Few books so adroitly and so fruitfully work through the interplay of emic and etic, not merely as a methodological obstacle, but as a substantive issue. Bender’s study of the social structure of American mysticism reveals a sort of collusion between academics and metaphysicals to occlude the fact that mysticism has a social structure and a history, and that it has been and still is an important part of the American religious experience.
At PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly site, George R. Lucas Jr wonders whether David Petraeus might “ramp up” efforts in Afghanistan to “enlist the aid of anthropologists and other academic social scientists to advise on ethics and local cultural practices,” as he did in Iraq. Meanwhile, Susan Jacoby, in her Washington Post blog, doubts the degree to which this change in American military leadership will yield meaningful, long-lasting cultural effects. She writes: “Regardless of who is in charge of U.S. forces in that country, the inside story remains the same: this is a society dominated by a toxic mixture of tribal thuggery and radical Islam, both of them based on repression of women.”
Several decades ago, well before there had been any concerted effort among historians and sociologists of religion to trash the standard model of the “secularization thesis,” Jürgen Habermas famously pronounced modernity an “unfinished project,” and then proceeded to outline both the conditions needed to complete the project and the barriers that the twentieth century had thrown up in its way. This is obviously not the place to rehearse Habermas’s ideas, especially since so many others have done it well. . . . But, for the present purposes, I think we can usefully boil the conditions down to two.
Courtney Bender is an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University and co-chair of the SSRC’s Working Group on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life. As a sociologist of religion, she pioneers novel ways of studying religion as it is lived and articulated in contemporary American culture. Her latest book, The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming in June), emerged from her research in Cambridge, Massachusetts among people whose “spiritual but not religious” practices and outlooks have been unaccounted for by conventional methods used to identify and study communities of belief.
David Smilde and Matthew May’s finding that there is an “emerging strong program” in the sociology of religion is a matter for some celebration. One has to wonder how religion could have fallen into such a state of inattention in a field that regards Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life as among its foundational texts. Until recently, it has been as if biologists agreed that Darwin had gotten right the central idea of their field and then proceeded to ignore that idea in everything else they did. With the return of religion as a crucial matter of public concern, such an outlook will no longer do. We, as scholars, must take other people’s religious lives more seriously, whether we take our own seriously or not.
The fruitfulness of the emerging sociology of religion will hinge on the extent to which it re-connects us with the questions that those foundational texts address. For present purposes, these are chiefly two.
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.
Like many of the other participants in this discussion on the current state of the sociological study of religion, we have spent much of our early careers engaging in broader conversations regarding culture and politics. As scholars who bring deep interests in religion to these conversations, we have found that the default position in these sub-disciplines is often either to ignore religion or to see it as a dangerous force in society. In this regard, we greet the “strong program” that Smilde and May see emerging in the sociology of religion with a modicum of relief, as it seems to show clearly that 1) more researchers are taking religion seriously, and 2) they are finding that religion’s influence is not always negative—rather, its effects are varied. But while a small part of us is relieved by the emergence of a strong program, a larger part shares Smilde and May’s concerns about the increasing focus on religion as an autonomous, independent variable. This emphasis seems to rest on the assumption that religion consists primarily of a set of fixed beliefs, preferences, and dispositions that exist deep inside of individuals, which they will reveal to us if only we ask the right questions.
Appearing at the same time as a manifesto for expanding American sociologists’ approaches to religion, Smilde and May’s report is a call for a big conversation. How shall we speak, and with what conceptual tools shall we think, about religion at present and in the future?
The report assesses religion research with models of disciplinary growth. It implies that one sign of vitality in the field of sociological research on religion is the increasing proportion of studies that take religion as an independent variable. Borrowing language from the sociology of science, the report finds that religion research is developing a “strong program,” according to which religion is figured as the causal mover in a variety of social processes, rather than the effect of some other, more important factor(s). This too is good news for readers who have invested intellectual energies in the field, as it is likely to invite more sociological respect for religion as a research topic.
But how happy should we be?
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.
Whenever there is talk about an ‘emerging strong program’ and ‘a new sociology of religion,’ we need to keep in mind not only where we might be going, but where we have come from. Given the apparent centrality of religion to much of the modern world, and what now appear to be the limitations of the secularization thesis, we should welcome any sign of a revival of the fortunes of the sociology of religion. However, I have serious doubts about its annunciation. We will need more than research into which religions are figured as independent variables, or which receive some positive evaluation from social scientists, in order to herald the birth of a strong program.
We need to be clear about what is happening in the field before advocating for any specific changes. To that end, I would like to look at Smilde and May’s findings through a thicker interpretive lens. The sociology of religion has actually changed very little in the past thirty years. For example, the number of religion articles in top journals and the percentage of those articles focused specifically on Christianity, Protestantism, and the US, have remained constant. While some of the changes reported in the paper are shown to be statistically significant, they are often so small as to be substantively insignificant. So, rather than reacting to a supposed change in the sub-discipline, we should instead be debating whether we want to change what is, by all appearances, a relatively stable field.
In these comments I want to point to another angle on the tendency to emphasize the positive aspects of religion—one which is not explored directly in the working paper, but which nonetheless concerns me—namely, the issues of which substantive subject areas get explored and how ‘religion’s effects’ are conceptualized. … Even within the study of U.S. Christianity, there is a lot of concern as to whether religion ‘protects’ one from substance abuse, mental depression, divorce, alcoholism, premarital sex, etc.—in other words, a bit of the scholarly version of ‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.’ But there is much less research as to whether religion contributes to inequality, whether it fosters discrimination, or whether it facilitates homophobia, racism, and the like. Particularly in the world of youth and religion, what people need protection from has a certain conceptual affinity with traditionally pietistic notions of ‘sin.’
Regardless of their stance on secularization, both classical and market-based positions take modernity for granted as the starting point for meaningful theorizing about religion. Both perspectives largely agree on modernity’s core features, and both are dominated by a substantive, neo-Weberian approach to religion as an object of study, focusing on self-identified religious groups and institutions. In this approach, religion provides coherent and bounded belief systems to which individuals commit through a process of rational assent, and which they find appealing for reasons of elective affinity with a religion’s capacity to make sense of the contemporary social environment and to orient behavior in effective ways to achieve desired ends.
From this perspective, the religion that thrives in the modern world, to borrow (and perhaps misuse) a metaphor from Mary Douglas, is a pig that has learned to chew its cud, an ill-fitting social form transformed into something that fits, albeit precariously, in the modern order.
According to [the assesments of Smilde and May and Levitt et al.], sociology of religion is not in crisis, but is rather undergoing a very promising transformation—from a sociological sub-discipline that, in prophesying the decline of its subject, in fact marginalized itself, to an area of inquiry that posits religion as an independent variable with an important social role in our late modern age. … I am, however, less persuaded by the optimism that allows the authors to declare that the sociology of religion is once again “healthy and vibrant,” that it is arising as a sub-discipline with a “strong program,” and that sociologists now “get” religion (as the title of Scott Jaschik’s article in Inside Higher Education would have it). In this moment of “paradigmatic reflection,” to use Smilde and May’s words—that is, at a moment when we still remember that sociologists do not have a very good track record in their predictions about, and, I would dare to say, in their understanding of, religion—one ought to be more inclined toward caution than optimism regarding the present and the future of the sociology of religion.
Most of us seem to know intuitively that resilience matters for post-disaster recovery, yet we also know that Haiti desperately needs the international community to create opportunity for advancement. In this essay, I try to answer two questions. First, what are some of the social sources of resilience? And second, how can the state and international organizations identify and acknowledge these sources of resilience, thus amplifying the positive effects of disaster relief and rebuilding efforts in Haiti?
Although the sociology of religion is in a relatively good state, it still seems that there is continuing intellectual insecurity and uncertainty among sociologists who study religion. … American sociologists embrace, to varying degrees, the scientific status of sociology, and our professional training, associations (e.g., ASA, SSSR), and allegiances (with NSF, NIMH, NIJ, etc.) reinforce commitment to a scientific methodology. Yet, within this framework, the prevalence of positive socio-evaluative findings in sociological studies of religion is seen as suggestive of a pro-religion bias in the research program, rather than a “true” finding. Does any other sociological sub-field produce meta-narratives about their area’s findings, or engage in the crisis-assessment conversations that sociologists of religion seem compelled to have?
The University of California at Riverside will host a two day conference entitled Saving the Sacred in a Secular Age on February 26-27. Participants include Charles Taylor, Hubert Dreyfus, and Sean Kelly.
Many sociologists of religion have voiced the concern that the sub-discipline is “in crisis.” Others bemoan what they view as the increasing irrelevance of internecine squabbles with respect to broader sociological conversations, much less the increasing prominence of interdisciplinary social science conversations about religion’s place in the modern world. We argue, instead, that the sociological study of religion is in fact not in crisis, but in the midst of recentering itself in new and exciting ways.
Most sociologists of religion seem to agree on two things. First, that the growth of interest in religion—in academia, the media, and society at large—has been accompanied by an increasingly vigorous research agenda in the sub-discipline. And second, that the sociology of religion is currently in a period of paradigmatic reflection. While the “new paradigm” put forward by Stephan Warner in 1993 helped awaken the field from the “dogmatic slumber” into which it was lulled by secularization theory, scholars continue to reflect on the basic conceptualization of religion and religious practice, as well as on the nature of the relationship between religious practice, institutions, and the sociology of religion itself.
Harvard University’s Center for Geographic Analysis has issued a call for posters for its “New Technologies and Interdisciplinary Research on Religion” workshop March 12 – 13, 2010.
“We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The debate over the sociological thesis of secularization has led to a revision above all in respect to prognostic statements. On the one hand, the system of religion has become more differentiated and has limited itself to pastoral care, that is, it has largely lost other functions. On the other hand, there is no global connection between societal modernization and religion’s increasing loss of significance, a connection that would be so close that we could count on the disappearance of religion. In the still undecided dispute as to whether the religious USA or the largely secularized Western Europe is the exception to a general developmental trend, José Casanova for example has developed interesting new hypotheses. In any case, globally we have to count on the continuing vitality of world religions.”
Tags: axial age, Jürgen Habermas, multiculturalism, philosophy, political theory, politics, post-secular, power of religion, religion, Rethinking secularism, social science
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It is my pleasure to inaugurate Rites and Responsibilities, a new dialogue series for The Immanent Frame and the Social Science Research Council, with a conversation with the renowned anthropologist and critical theorist Jean Comaroff of the University of Chicago. Rites and Responsibilities is published in conjunction with the SSRC’s Project on Religion and International Affairs, with the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation. Throughout the series, we will be talking to scholars, religious leaders, and other public figures about the public life of religion in an age of globalization, especially in regard to questions of sovereignty, accountability, and authority.
Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age will be published this spring by Harvard University Press. Edited by Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Craig Calhoun, this volume emerged out of a 2008 conference organized by the SSRC and Yale University.
Religion, reported Inside Higher Ed last week, is now the most popular theme of historical study in America, according to a recent survey conducted by the American Historical Association. For the past fifteen years that distinction belonged to “culture” and prior to that, to “social” history. Indeed, that the turn to religion represents at once a natural ramification of, and a challenge to, the methods and concepts particular to these formerly prevalent modes of historical study is a possibility suggested by Robert Townsend’s analysis of the AHA survey. In our latest off the cuff feature, several scholars to respond to the news that the proportion of historians who specialize in religion continues to climb, and to reflect on both the causes and the significance of of this distinct, and now confirmed, trend in historical studies.
At Miller-McCune, David Villano explores the recent publication in the online journal Evolutionary Psychology of a study by independent researcher, Gregory S. Paul, which indicates a correlation between prosperity and secularity at the national level. Paul found that amongst a group of develped nations, those that were least religious were also the most prosperous.
At Contexts Magazine, Jeffrey C. Dixon offers a variety of resources for understanding the controversy over Turkey’s application to the European Union. A summary of the article, which is available by subscription only, is below.