Clear as mud yet? ( OK, let’s bring it home, as it were. In our readings for today, we’ve read a great deal about sociology and about religion. But our greatest challenges as sociologists of religion are frequently epistemological: How do we know what we know? The Objective-intersubjective-subjective spectrum of experience helps us classify what belongs where as we consider our data for analysis. We know that groups of religious believers consider their beliefs to be Objectively True. Though we cannot possibly verify that, say, a given group of Buddhists have in fact attained Nirvana, we can say that it is more or less Objectively True that Buddhists in general believe in Nirvana and that they strive for this state of enlightenment. Thus, the belief (as a social fact) itself is the verifiable social data, and we can study the social meaning of that belief as a social construction. However, significantly, we are then studying that belief on an intersubjective level—or even subjective, if we choose to interview particular individuals about their beliefs about Nirvana.
As previously mentioned, in terms of the discussion beginning on page 7 , specific analytical methods and relying on data help us resolve our epistemological concerns. Keep in mind: The Objective-intersubjective-subjective epistemological continuum has its strong points as a quality topic for a philosophical debate, faculty forum, conference presentation, journal article, and so forth. But the specific methods of trying to assess how we know what we know are what we actually focus on as we do our research. That’s how we integrate theoretical perspectives and methodological techniques to help us answer the questions we find out there in the social world. See the illustrative research studies cited throughout the discussion of the theories for more information on that. Those of you with the Christiano text will get even more information on the strong points and drawbacks of many of the specific methods used as we study religion from a social-scientific perspective—what we can be assured that we know and what we don’t. I won’t repeat that entire discussion here.
However, just to recap some of the high points: Personal observation, when properly done, can be a powerful way of knowing. However, we may still never know all the answers, since one person—or even a small team of highly qualified observers—or even Saxe’s six blind men—can only perceive so much. We can also depend on numerical data, though statistical analyses rely heavily on probabilities and the researchers’ ability to interpret the numbers. Historical analyses help us spot consistent trends and patterns, though the researchers’ understanding of history can certainly be called into question. Surveys, usually based on sound statistical data, can be another powerful way of knowing, too, though self-reported data are also far from foolproof. Other methods—content analysis, textual analysis, experiments (though rare in the sociology of religion, TBH), and a number of others—have their upsides as well as drawbacks. Epistemologically, sound as the data and/or our reasoning might be, there comes a level on which we just cannot tell if our conclusions are Absolutely True—there’s always a reason they might not be. Remember the ele… ( ouch!) 😉
So while the methods we use to determine knowledge are much better than simply guessing or taking the proverbial shot in the dark, they are still influenced by subjective and intersubjective considerations. We as social researchers are trying to approach Objective Truth, but what we most generally find is intersubjective—and socially constructed!—in nature. We know what we know, we hope, but it’s frequently intersubjective knowledge. “Proof”—determining Objective Truth!—takes a great deal more time and effort. We can get there over years and years of work and study, if not decades or centuries. In any case, defining and “proving” Objective Truth is NOT going to come overnight.
So, as we strive to “reveal what’s hidden,” as in Bourdieu’s statement in Lesson 1, we are likewise striving to pin down what’s as Objective as possible, though we most often find intersubjective truth. No, we can’t concretely verify Objective fact without a LOT of work, particularly what’s beyond the scope of social science—but we can try to find the equivalents of the boiling point of water and/or the “brick wall” we discussed earlier, in terms of the questions we ask in the sociology of religion. We can try to find valid and reliable explanations of the phenomena we observe, such as Kelley’s explanation for more conservative church growth and in American Grace’s analysis of the contemporary American religious world. We can identify the deeper meaning behind the social facts we observe.
Moreover, we can represent the group we’re analyzing fairly and accurately, so that our explanations make sense even to those inside the group we’re discussing. This is a genuine challenge in what has generally been called “Mormon scholarship,” let me tell you, ( though the historical division between LDS-friendly and LDS-critical scholarly sources is far from unique to the culture associated with the church. How Islam is represented in the West, for instance, faces a similar problem and on a bigger scale. Most obviously, historical misrepresentation of Jews and the catastrophic consequences are paradoxically well-documented, yet still alive in some quarters of, ahem, society. We have not yet discussed Max Weber’s core concept of verstehen , but feel free to read up on that at the link given, if you wish—the top few paragraphs should give you the general idea, along with a more in-depth discussion below. See also this grad-school equivalent comparison of Weber’s thought with other philosophers , if you’re interested.
As we make sure that we understand and incorporate the essential differences between Objective, intersubjective, and subjective, we are more aware not only of what knowledge belongs where, but of how we know that knowledge. We rely on data in social science, and we need to go where the data indicate—that is, read the data and make our conclusions based on the patterns they suggest. In this way, we are able to more closely approach truth, if not Truth, and we will know it, even if we are minorities of one. And at the risk of wearing out the Saxe analogy’s welcome even further, the more data we gather and correctly evaluate, the better we will gradually see the whole elephant. As it is. Thanks, everyone, and I look forward to reading what you come up with on Assignment 2! As we