So as the venerable social scientist W.I. Thomas famously observed, that which is defined as real becomes real in its consequences. Because of this, phenomenology is frequently the framework of choice for analyzing the meaning of metaphysical encounters from a sociological standpoint. Perhaps the best-known phenomenological treatment in the sociology of religion is Martin Buber’s I-Thou discussion of a believer’s relationship to God; for an interesting perspective, see this entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Finally, another insightful theoretical approach to religious issues is social construction (of reality), largely as developed by our good friend Peter Berger as well as Thomas Luckmann in the mid-‘60s. For more information about social construction of reality (SCR, also called “constructionism”), see this explanation from the University of Massachusetts Amherst or this related discussion of social interaction from the University of Minnesota . (CTRL-F it for “social construction” for the by-name discussion, but also note that SCR actually helps shape other concepts discussed, such as socialization, dramaturgy, and social roles, and yes, there’s some symbolic interaction overlap as well.) ( Berger, for his part, analyzes religion as a socially constructed entity—that is, it’s built by people using social constructs or ideas. It has not only Objective (absolutely real and unchanging) and subjective (as experienced by the individual) dimensions, but a range of phenomena between is socially constructed—or as later theorists have called it, intersubjective. We’ve “socially constructed” these little-t truths between ourselves—or, essentially, in other words we have as a society agreed that they are true. Here’s where all the social facts live! For instance: Stoplights are red. It’s rude to eat in front of others without offering them food. It’s flat-out weird to wear tuxedos or evening gowns to college classes. Football players are cheered for acts of violence during games for which they’d be arrested if the acts were done at home or on the street.
Also, in social construction, cultural context matters, and very much so. Our Weltanschauung or “worldview” forms much of our intersubjective basis for building these social constructions. Belching is often seen as rude in North American contexts, but in several traditional Pacific Islander cultures (and a few other contexts elsewhere), belching is actually how a guest compliments a host on a fine meal. It’s a social fact—people believe in it and do it, whether or not it’s inherently true. As previously mentioned, Berger’s The Sacred Canopy explores religion as a product of an interaction between individuals and society, referred to as the Nomos. As social orders are constructed and maintained, individuals interact with the social order as part of constructing themselves. So religion acquires an individual and social aspect, and is constructed and maintained on both of those levels or contexts.
As a result, many intersubjective beliefs and social practices inform the world of religion, and the social constructionist explores these constructs. For instance, Michael Szonyi explores secularization in the Chinese religious world , where some forms of popular religion have survived despite an unfriendly official secular climate. He interestingly concludes that secularization—one of Berger’s key social constructs in the sociology-of-religion field, essentially the idea that societies that continue to gain scientific knowledge turn away from religion—is valuable in explaining what has happened in China from both a historical and ideological perspective. Still, secularization does not necessarily mean that science-informed societies eradicate religion, so religion does tend to persist alongside science. This is a complicated concept, and certainly applies to what we see happening in the contemporary United States, so stay tuned for more on that in Lesson 5.
I also acknowledge but at this point shall not explore ethnomethodology , which exists today more or less as a historical exercise in exploring social norms via their deliberate disruption rather than a viable independent theoretical framework. It’s intriguing as a combination theory and method alike, but it is NOT really a common theory used in the study of religion. Still, it does have historical significance in the larger field of sociology, so it’s at least worth mentioning here. Keep in mind also that the Christiano text briefly discusses deprivation theory, which has been discredited as applicable to the sociology of religion. Since rare and discredited theories are NOT commonly used in the sociology of religion, the most wise among you will no doubt note that it would NOT be a good idea to include them in Assignment 2 among your five common theories in the sociology of religion, if you see what I mean. 😊
Beyond Objective vs. Subjective
Social construction, highly epistemological in orientation, also brings out another important fact. Not all “little-t” truths can necessarily be considered either Objective or subjective. Other truths we encounter in our day-to-day lives carry a little “t” and may be deeply valued, if not held as if sacred, by some while questioned (and even hotly debated) ( by others: It’s rude to belch. George Washington is a national hero. Climate change means Al Gore was right about global warming. SUVs are safer than small cars. We need to retain the Affordable Care Act. Illegal immigrants are draining our local and national economy. Vaccines are completely safe. We need to own guns to defend ourselves. All of this includes statements we often hear and what people (at least some people, anyway, depending on what political angle we’re considering) seem to take for granted as true. They’re social facts. Politically, of course, there are disagreements—even within all those statements. That’s partly the point, actually. (
So when we dig deeper, we find there are exceptions and/or levels of complexity associated with these “truths.” We also find it’s tremendously difficult to figure out what really is true and what isn’t in terms of socially constructed knowledge. In our world of social-media urban legends, where it’s constantly rumored, say, that we must re-post such-and-such legalese on Facebook to preserve our rights as users, we want to be able to verify this. Some of us (me, too!) ( are in the habit of turning to www.snopes.com to check the facts whenever those alarm bells in our heads go off. But not even snopes.com claims infallibility! There’s a section of the site, in fact, containing several fake “urban legends” and a warning about what they call “False Authority Syndrome” to illustrate the importance of always checking facts for ourselves! Hence, we can’t—and shouldn’t!—always rely on outside sources to tell us what the truth is. Not even Snopes, or at least not all the time.
We can also be tricked by verisimilitude, or the fact that a particular entity appears in multiple respects to be authoritative. It resembles and acts like what we expect to be real, so the mere appearance may convince us that it is in fact real. Phishing scams for one depend directly on this quality of media. One of the best examples of verisimilitude is a prank site that warns about the many unrecognized dangers of “dihydrogen monoxide” —i.e., H2O!— ( in our modern world. Funny as the site is, particularly if you enjoy a wry poke at the often stuffy language and obscure structure of academic research, ( phishing scams and other media-related fraud are frequently effective precisely because they look or seem like they could be true. More recently, misinformation campaigns from other countries (or even from some unscrupulous individuals within ours) also tend to mimic what we’re familiar with—it may even look and sound like our friends or what we already think. Hence the crucial importance of critical thinking!
As we nonetheless continue to search for what’s true—or at least what’s authoritative, credible, AND accurate!—we may also find that many of the “truths” we like to think we know for certain may be dependent on a particular psychological, political, or cultural context. We also see there are even levels—particularly in political terms—on which the “truths” we discussed above may be considered false! Some families have belching contests just for fun. George Washington owned slaves, along with having other human foibles and imperfections. Something’s definitely happening with climate change, but even some climate change experts dispute the specific accuracy of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The “safety” of SUVs is chiefly attributed to their bulk and prevalence; if most cars were the size and weight of Smart Cars and there were no SUVs, the Toyota Yaris would be safer by comparison to all the rest. There’s still substantial debate, and firmly divided opinions, over Obamacare and illegal immigration—not to mention the effectiveness of vaccines of all varieties! And whatever else we do or don’t believe about what rights the Second Amendment gives us, don’t we certainly need to try our best somehow to keep guns away from criminals, haters, and those with violent tendencies among the mentally ill?
The previously mentioned “truths” seem true in people’s minds, and at least some people believe them to be true, but are they really always true? And if they’re true, what in the heck are we all arguing about? ( Here again, there are many “facts” out there that we see as “true” only because we (or at least some of us) believe they’re true—or even more to the point in social-construction terms, we see them as true because many of us have agreed that they’re true. They are social facts. And for those of you keeping score out there on the social-theory-perspective contest, this is pretty much the essence of social construction. (Yes, it’s true—Peter Berger, and Thomas Luckmann as well, have definitely affected my life. And now yours.) (