Monday, August 20, 2007

Faith and Sociology

Last week I was honoured with an invitation to speak at the Johns Hopkins Graduate Christian Fellowship (it was very special for me to be invited back into the midst of JHU students, even if grad students are a slightly different breed from what I was as an undergrad there). Over the summer they have been doing a series on the intersection of faith and the various academic disciplines. As a sociologist of religion, this is something I have certainly thought about a lot, so it was great getting a chance to think through that in such a way that I could explain it to others. I was given 9 questions to address, and now I'm sharing my answers with you...

1. What is your academic discipline and sub-discipline? Sociology: specifically, of religion, focus on Middle Eastern community and religious identity

2. What are the related academic disciplines? This varies depending on the specific type of sociology; for me: Anthropology, Psychology, Policy Studies, Law, Theology.
I made a list of themes that sociology has most frequently addressed as a discipline, to give an idea of how everyday, wide-reaching, and controversial it is: gender, feminism, globalisation, modernisation, religion, social control, governance, social exclusion, mental health, education, urbanisation, geography, crime, social class, inequality, poverty, institutions, migration, race and ethnicity, aging, motherhood, other life transitions, policy and government, national identity, religious identity, ethnic identity, other types of identity, work and employment, and sexuality.

3. What tenets, theories and models of the subject matter enjoy widespread adoption by practitioners of this discipline? (oops - when I got to this question, I panicked! I couldn't think of anything - so am I a real sociologist? I went to university bookstore, found the intro to sociology textbooks, and re-read them.) I chose to focus on the themes that most affected my own research.
First, the "founding fathers" of sociology spent a disproportionate amount of time and energy analysing religion. Basically, I'd say that they were trying to answer the question, "Why would people be so stupid as to follow a religion?" Yes, that's how Sociology as an academic discipline got started.
The first big name that comes to mind is Karl Marx. One of sociology's finest, famous for saying religion is the opiate of the people. What he was actually arguing was that religion is a big and powerful institution which provides those in power with the means to control the rest of the population. (Think Catholic church before the Reformation, and you must admit he made a good point.)
The second big name is Emile Durkheim. He liked religion, but only because he saw it as an important part of society, what brings and keeps us together, provides "social cohesion." In fact, Durkheim, who spent much of his time studying what he hoped was the most "primitive" of religions, concluded that religion's role in providing social cohesion is so important that what people are worshiping is actually society, not God. He liked religion, but not because he was a believer!
Max Weber was also more sympathetic to religion because it could be a powerful force for change in society. The book he wrote that most influenced me was The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he explains how Christian Protestant beliefs, especially Calvinism, brought about the competitive spirit of capitalism. The doctrine that we can't earn God's favour is paired with the idea that we should work to please God for more intangible reasons, so we end up glorifying hard work, puritanism and competition. A stimulating argument, but still leaving little room for the idea that God actually does exist and care.
There are other widespread theories of sociology that were important to my research. Among these were theories of social control and stigma and deviance (the idea that society sets up sanctions against groups such as homosexuals, drug users, handicapped or religious converts); minority representation (giving the socially disadvantaged groups a voice, pointing out all the flaws in colonialism; this accusation also applies to anthropologists and missionaries); the structuralist debate (do we make society or does society make us?) resolved by symbolic interactionism (it's a bit of both).
Finally, Sociology is all about empiricism and deconstruction - breaking down a situation to find what's really at the core. And then explaining why what we've found still isn't really, really the core. Empiricism is all about needing to find something data-based and provable at that core - leaving little room for the supernatural. But now sociology is increasingly postmodern. A lot of Christians are scared of postmodernism, but the truth is that postmodern thinking has opened up the social sciences to acknowledging that there might be something supernatural out there, that we will never be able to explain everything fully, and that faith can be real.

4. What about the underlying tenets, models and theories of your discipline could find easy acceptance by those holding a distinctly Christian world view? My first reaction was nothing. But that's not really true. I think that one very important value held by both sociologists and Christians is that of community: community is seen as essential for developing identity and affiliations; relationships are foundational to a person's sense of being and essential to understanding a person.

5. What about the underlying tenets, models and theories of your discipline could find cautious or non-acceptance by those holding a distinctly Christian world view? (See number 3 - many of the same answers apply)
I highlight the following four theoretical perspectives: the assumption that religion plays primarily a social role (instead of an existential role); social control theories that criticise any institution, especially the "church"; relativisation of values and reality (the idea that one perspective is never really quite right and that reality is something that is more likely socially constructed than really true); and positivism, that idea that anything can be empirically proved and if it can't, it's obviously wrong (fortunately, this is not very popular in the more recent generation of sociologists).

6. What would a prophetic Christian voice want to say to uncritical practitioners of your discipline? The following are themes that I've developed in my own career as a Christian sociologist.
- It's very easy, and important, to question assumptions. In some ways, that's what Sociology is all about. But, I'd say to most sociologists I know, remember to be aware of your underlying assumptions. For example, in my research many participants told me of supernatural experiences, especially dreams and visions. I've been told that I can't take those accounts at face value; I need to find the sociological context in which they happened. I reply by saying that we also can't assume that those things did not happen! (For example, one woman I interviewed told me she had a dream of a person being healed; she'd never met or heard of the person, but a few days later she met him and learned of his healing. I was later told that she must have heard of him before and forgotten, because we can't assume that her dream was true. I replied that I would acknowledge that her dream may have been based in a past experience - if my counterpart would acknowledge that the dream also might have been supernatural!) It's easier to question other people's assumptions than our own, but to be true to our discipline and also true to seeking the truth, we need to do that.
- When we deconstruct situations in the world around us, we are left with nothing to stand on. If I explain how my faith is necessary for relationships, having influence in society, and for social cohesion, I may find myself rejecting that faith. It's hard to believe something that you have explained away. But if we do that, we're left with nothing. So we need faith. Many of my coworkers either are workaholics and never stop to live life (they can't live with themselves in their deconstructed worlds), or they spend way too much time as drunk as possible so they don't have to think about it. I'd suggest they try faith in something bigger than them that is so big they can't possibly try to explain it.

7. What insights into God's world are available from your discipline?
First, the second point in #6, is key to my understanding of God and his creation. By tearing down all my assumptions and picking apart society, I've been left with nothing but God, and the realisation that he really is incomprehensible and enormous and therefore worthy of my devotion. In some ways Sociology does for faith what fire does for a precious stone - it burns away the junk and leaves only the beautiful, valuable core.
Second, it turns a mirror on religion. When we realise that the institution of the church can be used for terrible things like subduing people, hopefully we will work harder to avoid that tendency. It definitely helps us understand how we, as Christians, are often misunderstood. It also can help us see how human nature gets in the way of what God is doing. My research has focused on discovering how religious converts interact with their families and culture, and how they form communities. My hope is that this understanding will help similar people to have an easier transition to life in their new faith than their predecessors have had.

8. On a related note, what heed should Christians take to the scholarly results/progress/perspectives of your discipline? Because sociologists spend a lot of energy, time, money and effort researching things that are of interest to Christians and to churches, I'd say don't invent the wheel. If you want to know about racial issues in your church's neighbourhood, chances are that a sociologist has already been studying them and can provide some good insights. If you are interested in cultural misunderstandings for explaining the message of Christ, or the concerns of manual laborers who go to your church, or anything in between, sociological research can be a very useful ministry tool. It's just a question of looking it up.

9. How can a Christian sociologist glorify God? This question was the most personal for me, because I felt like it was asking me how I, as a Christian sociologist, seek to glorify God in my discipline. So here are the things I try to do:
- Remain true to the essence of my faith. Willingly question those things that aren't essential to Christianity, but hold on even tighter to my relationship with Jesus and the implications that has.
- Avoid general academic pitfalls - like living to publish and have a name that is respected. My situation is a bit different in that I don't expect to stay in academic sociology long-term, but I have definitely struggled with the question of presenting and publishing for the sake of my reputation and not because my research was of benefit to those hearing or reading what I'd say.
- Learn to build up, not tear down with criticism. Sociologists are social critics, and when we do that all day in our work, it's hard not to keep doing it all the time. I'm definitely still working on this one, but trying to only criticise in constructive ways and focus on encouraging. Analyse but not if it's only to offend someone else.
- "Advocacy Research" - use my research to actually help people. I can't let that get in the way of the integrity of my research (a researcher can't say, "I'm out to prove that ___"; s/he has to say, "I'm out to find out if ____", or "I want to answer this question: ___?"), but the findings can still be used to help people, not just fill libraries. That's what I really want to do.

1 comment:

tony said...

Hey! Some of us in Economic History want to claim Marx! But you're probably right. Hrmmm... since I like those questions I think I might post them on my myspace blog. Those seem like good questions. P.S. I'll be in DC from the 24th through the 5th. If you want to meet up just tell me a date and time. I don't have anything particularly planned at this point. So feel free to send me a line.

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