With that said: Let’s take a brief look at five common specific theoretical sociological approaches that are often used in the sociology of religion. Another caution: Please don’t either identify or think of them as the only five. The Christiano text lists quite a few others, and there is also a really extensive section in The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion about social theory; just search the resource in your ASU Library and add the search term “Theory: Classical, Modern, and Postmodern” for more. In any case, the first and probably most noteworthy theoretical perspective is functionalism. For more on the functional perspective, please click on this link from Grinnell College .
Functionalism has to do with the study of—big surprise here—the social functions of religion. ( Typical aims and focuses of functional-religious studies include what religions do, how they work, what social needs those functions fill, and what the religions accomplish. Note also that, in line with the Grinnell discussion linked above, religions may well also feature manifest (intended and direct) functions, such as reduced consumption of pork and/or alcohol in Muslim communities, as well as latent (unintended and indirect, likely with several other contributing factors) functions, such as a reduced violent crime rate in highly religious communities. This is a fairly common approach in the social-scientific study of religions, and as a matter of fact, much of our course will involve a functional focus. It’s a hard habit to break. 😊 Still, we will touch upon the others from time to time, as appropriate.
As we’ve read, many functional theorists tremendously emphasize the idea of rational choice. Some consider rational choice a sub-theory of functionalism, though rational choice really comes from economics. Yet, as addressed in our first assignment, is rational choice—a conscious analysis of the costs and benefits associated with our decisions, whether major or minor—the best explanation for religious affiliation and behavior? Do we change our religious beliefs, church membership, spiritual habits, and so forth for reasons purely related to our self-interest? Or are there other factors at work in our religious practices—and if so, which and why?
Keep in mind that, according to how most sociologists consider Rational Choice Theory (RCT), believers are not merely assessing concrete costs and benefits (money, time, property, and so forth) of a particular religion. They are also considering abstract costs and benefits, such as their friendship circles and networks of support (whether losing the ones they have and/or the emotional/energy costs of developing new ones), lifestyle changes, overall level of comfort, the customs and traditions they have learned throughout life, and the ultimate benefit, Heaven-Nirvana-Enlightenment-Valhalla-Elysian Fields-Becoming One with the Universe-etc. So the believer weighs ALL those costs, concrete AND abstract, against the benefits, also concrete AND abstract, in making decisions about religion and spirituality.
I’m a bit conflicted about this. The more abstract conceptualization of RCT makes more sense to me than a mere discussion of money or economics, but I still suspect the larger explanation is even more nuanced. RCT is certainly involved in religious behavior, but I see the process as more complicated than RCT alone suggests. For instance, what about religious conviction and experience? How do believers become convinced of the Ultimate Truth of a particular religious system? Then how do believers remain convinced of that truth? Third, as some past students have insightfully pointed out, what happens in settings where religious freedom is restricted so that would-be seekers cannot actually seek? Does RCT only apply in settings of a free religious marketplace of ideas? And fourth, is it possible to even possess the capability to investigate every religion in existence? Fifth… well, let’s stop there. ( But you get the idea… RCT is definitely involved as religious seekers make their conscious choices, and it makes sense from where I sit as an explanation of the rational component of religious conversion or switching. But in terms of overall religious behavior and RCT, there are more questions to be asked. And answered. (
For those interested in more exploration of RCT and religion, feel free to consult two excellent discussions and critiques of RCT in The Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion and Sociology of Religion , including some allusions to the relevant intriguing field of religious economics.
Another frequent approach is conflict theory. This sometimes takes the more specific form of Marxism, though this (overt Marxism) is FAR less common in religion and more prevalent in, say, literary studies. Still, other variations of conflict theory exist throughout the sociology of religion, such as Turner’s social drama theory covered in the Christiano text. You can also find more information on conflict theory at this link from the University of Hawaii . Scholars interested in race, gender, inequality, power differentials, hegemony, and class analysis in religion frequently incorporate this perspective. There are numerous instances of conflict theory in modern sociology of religion, but for only one example, Susan Rose studied the role of women in a charismatic Christian community in the mid-‘80s. She concluded that the women she observed willingly relinquished some of their power and status in order to support their husbands, who they felt had been given “divine callings.” However, as an intriguing byproduct, as the women redefined their gender role, the male role was also redefined in turn. See a link to this study here or look it up in Sociology of Religion (1987) vol. 48 no. 3, pp. 245-258.
Another common approach is often called “ symbolic interaction” but sometimes goes by a variety of other names in contemporary academic research, such as ritual, frame, or symbolic analysis. See this reading from Iowa State for more information on this theoretical approach. Studies vary widely; ritual and frame analyses, for instance, are often conducted using SI theoretical approaches, as well as research into the meaning and social significance of particular objects—for instance, icons or religious music—or practices such as kneeling for prayer. Religious philosopher Mircea Eliade has written a great deal about myth and ritual, which is also well-suited to a symbolic-interaction social-theory framework. But as another more current instance, a 2010 study by Michelle Byng (found at Critical Sociology, January 2010, vol. 36 no. 1, pp. 109-129) analyzed modern symbolic representations of Islam in modern news media, focusing especially on the practice of the hijab or veil for women in America, England, and France, as well as how the news media of these nations covered the practice.
We also want to explore, as previously mentioned, the approach of phenomenology. As in the context of The Heretical Imperative, this is something of a subjective exploration of ideas, perspectives, and experiences, as with metaphysical or “other-worldly” encounters. Sometimes this also extends to paranormal experiences—that is, experiences with the unknown in general in terms of what’s beyond current scientific understanding, under which category many include metaphysics. But since religion and metaphysics tend to be closely linked, this area often becomes the focus in sociology of religion. See this link from Penn State for more information.
Phenomenology—the study of phenomena—considers individual other-worldly ideas, perspectives, and events as very real to the individual and/or group, but admits they may be difficult for others to apprehend. Phenomenologists in the sociology of religion often study accounts of various phenomena—near-death experiences, ghostly encounters, spiritual “witnesses” or “promptings,” déjà vu, feelings of “being called” or of encountering divinity, religious conversions, dreams and visions, and so forth—and analyze believers’ accounts of those experiences for their individual and social meaning. Please note, however, that phenomenologists in general are not necessarily trying to actually undergo metaphysical experience—we’re not talking about “ghost hunters,” mediums, séance participants, etc. Instead, these scholars assume that the reported idea/perspective/experience has real meaning to the individual who experienced it (i.e., that it’s a social fact), consider the after-the-fact report of that phenomenon as evidence, and then assess the individual and social meaning of the phenomenon.
To fully understand phenomenology, it may help to turn to none other than Harry Potter. As at least a few of you doubtless remember (so no spoiler alert, sorry), ( late in Deathly Hallows, Harry briefly dies and has a vision-like experience of meeting and speaking with his deceased former Hogwarts headmaster, Albus Dumbledore. At the conversation’s end, Harry asks his mentor if the vision has been real or if it has been all happening in his head. Dumbledore’s reply perfectly illustrates a core assumption of phenomenology: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?” (JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 2007, pp. 722-23.) This statement is completely true from a phenomenological standpoint, everyone.
So there it is: In phenomenology, the fact that the experience is happening “inside your head” (as it were) makes it real and meaningful to you! Likewise, experiences that are “inside the heads” of others are real to them, and are therefore worth exploring for their meaning—not only to them, but to others who hear about them. The experience becomes a social fact—regardless of whether the experience actually happened, it’s unquestionable that people believe that it happened. We take the belief that it happened as the social fact in question and analyze accounts of the experience as the data.