Sociology of Religion and Religious Studies: Disciplines, Fields, and the Limits of Dialogue

As it happens, just two and a half weeks ago, I was in the audience of a panel called ‘Rethinking Theory, Methods, and Data: A Conversation between Religious Studies and Sociology of Religion’ presented at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion.

By Adam J. Powell

Adam Powell is COFUND Junior Research Fellow in Durham University’s Department of Theology and Religion.  His research and publications involve sociological theories of identity, particularly the work of Hans Mol, and the application of such theories to Mormonism and other new religious movements.  He is the author of Irenaeus, Joseph Smith, and God-Making Heresy (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015) as well as Hans Mol and the Sociology of Religion (Routledge, 2017).

Adam J. Powell

Adam Powell is COFUND Junior Research Fellow in Durham University’s Department of Theology and Religion.  His research and publications involve sociological theories of identity, particularly the work of Hans Mol, and the application of such theories to Mormonism and other new religious movements.  He is the author of Irenaeus, Joseph Smith, and God-Making Heresy (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015) as well as Hans Mol and the Sociology of Religion (Routledge, 2017).

In response to:

Sociology of Religion – and Religious Studies?

What makes the sociology of religion and Religious Studies distinct from each other - if anything? Paul-Francois Tremlett, Titus Hjelm and David Robertson discuss what the two approaches have in common, and how they differ. Importantly, they consider how they might learn from each other.

As it happens, just two and a half weeks ago, I was in the audience of a panel called ‘Rethinking Theory, Methods, and Data: A Conversation between Religious Studies and Sociology of Religion’ presented at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion.  The panel was advertised as a ‘conversation’ discussing the: ‘overlaps and differences between the role of theory, method and the collection of data in the respective fields. Panelists will focus on “what counts” as data and how religious studies and sociology of religion can mutually benefit from this discussion.’

Whilst the papers were generally very well-conceived and presented, it was the subsequent Q&A session with the audience that revealed a number of so-called fault lines as well as a general lack of consensus on what exactly religious studies is: discipline or field.  Indeed, it seemed that those with a background in religious studies were generally more open to the idea of their academic arena being framed in terms of a broad ‘field of study’ in which many disciplines and approaches participate.  Yet, those representing the sociology of religion seemed more keen to posit religious studies as a stand-alone ‘discipline’, complete with its own questions, methods, and theories.  When an audience member suggested that to insist on religious studies as a distinct and entirely separate discipline was also to limit even further the appropriate ‘house’ for the sociology of religion, one panelist argued steadfastly that that was not a problem; the sociology of religion was firmly located within sociology departments at the institutional level and had its own associations and publications to prove its established position within academia generally.

This seems to be a particularly American response – as pointed out by Paul-Francois Tremlett and Titus Hjelm in their interview with David Robertson.  Whilst many sociologists of religion in American are, indeed, ‘housed’ in sociology departments where they teach courses beyond those focused on religion, the picture is quite different in the UK and elsewhere.  In the latter contexts, sociology of religion is most frequently encountered within departments of theology and religion, or religious studies.  Indeed, it was refreshing to hear Tremlett and Hjelm agree on this and note that the sociology of religion is therefore sometimes understandably uncomfortable in its own arrangements with higher education as it attempts to maintain a cohesive (and coherent) body of scholarship detached from departments of social science and within a strikingly amorphous and ill-defined branch of the academy.  What is perhaps more interesting, however, is that the scenarios on both sides of the Atlantic highlight a consequent desire to distinguish between a discipline and a field of study.

I concur with those on the panel as well as with Tremlett and Hjelm, then, that such a distinction seems warranted and helpful as we grapple with the nature of religious studies and its relationship to the sociology of religion.  Setting aside the argument that could be made concerning sociology of religion’s status as a ‘sub-discipline’ of sociology – an argument that hardly seems rebutted by the presence of organizations and publications dedicated to the sociology of religion – it does seem clear that a classificatory disparity exists here.  Religious studies has always included a number of approaches, methods, theories, lines of inquiry, etc.  In some sense, religious studies is a both/and endeavour: it is both science-based and humanities-based, both data-driven and theory-driven, both political and apolitical.  At the very least, it contains the potential to be any number of those things.  Accordingly, Hjelm’s observation that religious studies spends too much time looking inward, debating the definitions and theories of religion rather than analysing instances of religion, is likely astute.  As a large inclusive field, religious studies was perhaps always doomed to expend a great deal of energy on self-definition and self-clarification.

Yet, sociology of religion seems a narrower discipline, right?  It has a history traceable to Durkheim and Weber, perhaps Marx as well.  It is ostensibly science-based and data-driven.  Therefore, as both Tremlett and Hjelm suggested it is perhaps more amenable to, or palatable for, the uses put to it by politicians, journalists, and some of those involved in public policy.  In other words, sociology of religion is perhaps more scientific than religious studies because the latter’s scientific qualities are diluted by the presence of non-, or less, scientific approaches.  That being said, it does appear that putting sociology of religion ‘in conversation’ with religious studies is something like putting an apple in conversation with an orange, or putting an apple in conversation with the fresh produce section of the supermarket.  Although such an analogy is doubtlessly flawed in significant ways, it does serve to highlight one of the most striking aspects of these discussions.  To what extent is this a dialogue, a two-way conversation?

I suggest that the answer may be found in the issue of theory.  If an academic discipline is not only defined by a set of acceptable methods, a focused realm for data collection, and a cannon of resources but also is made to include the ‘development of theory’ – a characteristic highlighted as belonging to the sociology of religion but not to religious studies by members of that same AAR panel – then we begin to see the relationship of a discipline to a field more clearly.  Religious studies arguably has its own cannon, acceptable methods, and circumscribed territories for data gathering, even its own popularly used theories, but it is more difficult to contend that it has produced those theories apart from the contributions of the individual disciplines comprising the larger field.  As the interviewees noted, something like ‘lived religion’ as a concept came to religious studies from the sociology of religion.  Likewise, one can easily highlight yet again that the history of religious studies is a history of the development of other narrower disciplines like sociology and anthropology who analysed religion as a central focus of their own agendas.

For those of us working in British religious studies contexts, this relationship is witnessed on a daily basis.  My own department, for example, consists of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and literary scholars all engaged in the study of religion.  The field of religious studies, thus, encompasses massively diverse disciplinary perspectives and questions.  Large varieties of methods and theories are used to explore and analyse equally broad sets of phenomena.  Somewhere in the cacophony, sociology of religion is speaking to the religious studies enterprise.  It is offering up ideas and methods, sure, but it is also developing theories which may subsequently support or engender the work of other scholars in religious studies.  In the end, the relationship of the discipline to the field is possibly, justifiably, unilateral.  The sociology of religion may have something to say to religious studies, but I am not sure what religious studies has to say to the sociology of religion.  Of course, by placing sociologists of religion in departments of religious studies for a few generations, we may just find out how the latter shapes the former.

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