Posts

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.  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.

Sociology of Religion – and Religious Studies?

“You got your sociology of religion in my religious studies!” “You got religious studies in my sociology of religion!” – DELICIOUS

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. Does the sociology of religion over-rely on surveys, or could RS benefit from such large-scale data? Is Religious Studies overly-concerned with theory and definitions, or could sociology benefit from a more critically-nuanced approach? Why is it that sociologists seem to have the ear of policy-makers when RS scholars do not?

This episode is the sixth in a series of seven entitled “New Directions in the Sociology of Religion”, co-produced with SOCREL to celebrate their 40th anniversary.

Be sure to check out the other podcasts in this series, such as ‘Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan,  ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie, ‘Researching Radicalisation‘ with Matthew Francis, and ‘Religion, youth, and Intergenerationality‘ with Naomi Thompson.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Wu Tang Clan gear, Cornish sea salt, and more.

 

But Mountains, Dammit!

Titus Hjelm’s book Social Constructionisms: Approaches to the Study of the Human World is a fantastic introduction to the topic of “social constructionism.” Titus successfully demonstrates that this term brings together a plurality of approaches that, although they share a great deal in common, have crucial differences. Perhaps the most admirable feature of Titus’ book is it’s clarity—Titus writes about complicated issues with clear and concise prose, making it perhaps a perfect fit for undergraduate “theory and method” courses in which students must be exposed to these critical approaches.

Since commenting on where we agree is unlikely to be productive or advance the conversation, here in my response I’ll focus on Titus’ criticisms of what he considers more “radical” forms of social constructionism, which he associates with the “excesses” of postmodernism or post-structuralism. Hinting in both the RSP interview and the book that he identifies as a type of critical realist, Titus calls into question those forms of social constructionism that are unabashedly anti-realist. Consider the following statements:

According to some social constructionist views, “we can only reach the world through discourse.” (from the interview)

“If everything is discourse and nothing is real, where is the position we can take to critique those constructions?” (from the interview)

“In their most radical form, these [constructionists] claim that we can know about the human world—and the natural world, for that matter—only through discourse. Any ‘reality’ outside of discourse is either bracketed or denied.” (from the book; 88)

For relativist constructionists, “there is nothing [to the world] beyond our description of it.” (from the book; 92)

For relativists, “there is no ‘reality’ to fall back on.” (from the book; 92)

From the relativist perspective, “the ‘world out there’ and perceptions of the world are radically separated, with no access to the former, except through discourse. It is one thing to say that the meaning of, say, gravity is dependent on our ways of talking about it—a position that constructionists would happily embrace. It is another thing for me to jump out of a sixth story window and assume a safe landing because I’m shouting ‘I’m not falling!’” (from the book; 93)

I find such claims frustrating for two reasons. First, I think that Titus is criticizing the forms of constructionism with which I identify—i.e. he’s targeting me—but I think he unfairly represents my view. Second, I’m also frustrated because some of the constructionists I identify with say exactly the sorts of claims Titus is criticizing. All of that is to say: I think that Titus is aiming at a straw man (are there straw women, I wonder?), but unfortunately a straw man that some of my peers stand behind and prop up. Thus, rather than tear down Titus’s excellent work, let me clarify the difference between my view and the view Titus criticizes.

The main problem, for me, is that although I might be a radical constructionist, I absolutely reject the dualist view of the world Titus is partly working with and partly criticizing. This dualism assumes an opposition between the world-as-it-is-in-and-of-itself and the world within discourse. Discourse apparently is “in here” (but where is “here,” one wonders?), and reality is “out there.” (We’re not far here from the contradictions inherent in Kant’s distinction between phenomena and noumena.) Of course, there is some ambiguity for the social constructionists, insofar as they vacillate between the view that there is a world out there—but we have access to it only through discourse—and the view that there isn’t a world out there—that is, everything, even reality, is discourse. This latter view drops the ontological dualism and turns into a type of discursive monism.

Titus’ view seems to be closer to the dualist view, except without the caveat about being locked within discourse: there is a mind-independent or discourse-independent world “out there,” and we can make objective or authoritative rather than merely subjective or relativist claims about it. Despite the insistence of the radical constructionists, there is a real world out there—we can thump the table or point to the mountains on the horizon dammit! Are we to believe those mountains weren’t here before humans came to name them?! Mountains, dammit! They’re real and they’re mind-independent! (It’s at this point that the radical constructionists ask, “can you say that without discourse?” and then the realists really go apoplectic.)

By the time we get here, we’re far afield from where I’d like the conversation to have headed. What’s crucially been lost at this point—from my perspective at least—is the role of discourse in individuation or definition—i.e., the extension of a concept—and the pragmatic ends of the latter.

The best example I can point to for how discourse has a constitutive role in the individuation of something we tend to take for granted as “natural” in the so-called “real world” is in Edward Schiappa’s discussion of the politics of “wetlands” (see Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning; 2003). In the early 1990s, wetlands were a hot topic. Environmentalists wanted to protect wetlands from developers who wanted to clear the land and build on it, while developers wanted the opposite. President George H. W. Bush signed into legislation a bill protecting wetlands from development, but the legislation redefined wetlands in ways that suited the interests of the developers rather than the environmentalists. Wetlands were protected, but there was a bait-and-switch of sorts: the land to which the concept “wetland” extended shrunk dramatically with the novel definition in the new legislation. Both parties used the concept “wetland,” but they individuated something rather different, and—in addition—that to which their concept extended was directly tied to their social or political interests. Schiappa concludes, “definitions are interest-driven and saturated with questions of power and persuasion.”

I think that Titus’ framing of “radical constructionism” fails in helping us to understand Schiappa’s view. First, by no means is Schiappa saying that there’s a world within discourse and then a world out there. For Schiappa, the existence of wetlands is contingent upon the definition we give to the term; if we change the definition of wetland we have a different reality out there to deal with—just as gerrymandered districts are quite literally different districts than before they were gerrymandered. There’s no “reality” of wetlands without first having individuated some types of land as wetland and other types of land as not-wetland. Second, neither is Schiappa saying that all we have access to is the world of discourse. “Wetlands” are constituted by discourse, but that’s not the same thing as saying that wetlands are discourse. Third, it wouldn’t make sense to say that “wetlands” exist independent of discourse; it is we, as humans, who separate this from that, wetlands from not-wetlands, and so on, depending on our interests.

But what about mountains, dammit? Weren’t they there before humans evolved to identify them as mountains? To press the realist position, let me ask: did the state of New York exist before humans came along to identify it as such? Even the realist would have to admit: New York is a human invention—the distinctions between “New York” and “Massachusetts” and “Pennsylvania” aren’t natural, but are lines we as humans draw in the sand. That is, even the realist has to admit that the individuation or extension of “New York” is discursive. But then to press the realist further: what about the Adirondack Mountains? Do the mountains individuate themselves from the land we consider not-mountainous? Or do we, as humans, individuate them for our purposes?

We could of course individuate the stuff of the world in ways that intersect with but don’t exactly match the extension of the term “Adirondack Mountains.” No doubt there are “streams” in the mountains, “hiking paths” over them, “bear hunting grounds” across them, “good fishing areas” in them, and so forth. In addition, whichever discursive concepts we use to slice up the stuff of the Adirondacks will depend on our particular pragmatic interests—do we want fish for dinner? to avoid running across bears? a challenging hike?

In addition, were our interests different—or were we different kinds of animals—no doubt we would individuate our world differently. Does an ant in the Adirondacks see a “mountain”? Is a “mountain” a useful concept for something as small as an insect? If there were alien creatures whose walking stride was the same as the distance from our sun to Pluto, would they have a use for individuating the “Adirondack Mountains”? On the contrary, what we might individuate as the Adirondacks would likely be nothing other than dust on the shoes of their feet, not worth individuation or attention. As some cognitive linguists have noted–for instance, in Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987) or Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh (1999)–what is useful for us to individuate is relative to the type of bodies we are in: “How animals categorize depends on their sensing apparatus and their ability to move themselves and manipulate objects. Categorization is therefore a consequence of how we are embodied” (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 17-18).

All of this is to say: crucial for understanding so-called radical social constructionism is the pragmatic function of concepts in individuating the stuff of the world. At bottom, drawing lines between mountains and streams is little different than drawing lines between New York and Massachusetts. And, on this view, the practice of discursive or conceptual individuation neither gets between us and the real world, nor do the things of the world exist as “things” independently of our individuation of them as particular things.

Social Constructionism

What is social constructionism, and how is it important to the study of religion? In this interview, Titus Hjelm tells David Robertson about social constructionism – that is, a set of approaches which see social realities as built from language, rather than reflecting ontological realities. Hjelm outlines how these approaches emerged as part of the ‘linguistic turn’ in the social sciences more broadly, as well as pointing to some different interpretations of how these constructivist, discursive or critical approaches operate. Their importance, he suggests, is in challenging how we think about ontology, epistemology and power.

sui generis thing-in-itself, rather than a product of human culture. Despite – or because – of this, constructionism has not been broadly adopted as a theoretical approach in the field.

For much more on the subject, see Hjelm’s recent book Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religions. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, Finnish metal CDs, fishing tackle, and more.

Marx, Spiritualism and Power

By David G. M. Wilson, Edinburgh.

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 20 June 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Titus Hjelm on “Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion” (18 June 2012).

Titus Hjelm and Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion

I begin this response to Titus Hjelm’s discussion of the continuing relevance of Marxist approaches to the study of religion by noting his assertion that Marx is underemployed as a source of ideas, partly because he has generally been regarded as critical of religion. A number of additional reasons are also relevant. One difficulty for Marxist scholars has been the extent to which the predictive power of Marxist models was brought into question as the twentieth century unfolded. Yet many of Marx’s particular criticisms are not only relevant to western society of his day but continue to be relevant because of their ability to highlight the extent to which particular classes (or constituencies) are still able to maintain powerful social positions. The problems and characteristics of western society that were highlighted by Marxist approaches are still with us; if the predictive power of Marxist approaches has seemed problematic, this may simply be an indication that our understanding of the mechanisms involved has been partial.

Any plea for the continuing relevance of Marx is also a plea for the continuing importance of the sociological study of religion, of attending to the many aspects of the relationships that human beings maintain with each other. In the past, this stance has often relied upon insights derived from the core Marxist idea of class struggle, which has generally led scholars to focus upon collective behaviour. As Hjelm indicates, one possible response is to pay closer attention to the socially constructed ways in which human beings individually behave, and he mentions Peter Berger as a scholar using the Marxist concept of alienation to explore through critical discourse analysis the ways in which ideologies (including the teachings of particular religious traditions) maintain themselves (Norman Fairclough). The argument, essentially, is that there is progress to be made in understanding the mechanisms involved by examining particular examples.

This is an approach that may also offer insights relevant to the cognitive study of religion; for example, it may be possible to draw upon the work of scholars such as Barbara Rogoff, who explores human cognition as a socially constructed learning outcome. I am often heard making the argument that adherence to religious (and other) traditions can usefully be comprehended as an apprenticeship outcome, but in order to understand fully what I mean by this, it is important to attend not only to the linguistic dialogues people maintain with each other but also to their other behavioural dialogues. Rogoff’s emphasis upon human cognition as the outcome of an apprenticeship based upon guided participation is extremely valuable here. The human ability to think, to problem-solve, is acquired from those who have power over us during the years when we begin to come to consciousness. Hjelm is wise, therefore, to ask why social class (or other social constituency) tends not to be explored in religion, given that it has long been recognized that class and power are closely-connected.

This nexus of issues is particularly relevant to my own scholarly interests, which focus upon western mediumship as my particular specialism within spirit communication traditions, particularly shamanism. Spiritualism is often described as a ‘working-class religion’, based upon scholarly characterization of those who generally attend demonstrations of mediumship. It tends also to be described as ‘marginal’, even though scholars such as Martin Stringer suggest that resort to mediums and psychics is a widespread form of engagement with the ‘non-empirical’ in contemporary western society, something he regards as central to what religion is ‘about’. The marginality of Spiritualism lies not in a lack of those practising and/or interested but in its marginalization by more dominant discourses. It is not only more powerful religious discourses that are guilty here: the number of western scholars willing to conduct research in this field is small, a situation that is both the product of past marginalization and an effective way of ensuring continuing marginalization.

There is obvious scope for exploring the exclusion of Spiritualism as a class issue, but there is also scope for exploring the relationships within the Spiritualist movement in terms of the different constituencies, as I call them, that subsist within it. My own forthcoming book undertakes a certain amount of work here, exploring the institution of mediumship and how that craft is learned as being central to the maintenance of the Spiritualist movement. I also draw attention to Robin Wooffitt’s work ‘The Language of Mediums and Psychics’ as a valuable example of critical dialogue analysis, exploring the maintenance of mediumistic authority vis-à-vis clients, reminding us that ‘class’ distinctions are maintained within (as well as among) religious traditions, precisely because this is key to the maintenance of authority. Comprehending the internal exercise of power (between different classes or categories of practitioner or adherent) can be crucial in understanding the persistence of particular religious traditions, and may therefore be an important component in understanding the persistence of religion generally in a supposedly secularized western society.

Hjelm notes as classically Marxist the suggestion that more welfare (in the sense of material wellbeing) should lead to less religion, based upon the perception that if peoples’ material needs are met in this world, they become less interested in the next. A difficulty for traditional Marxist approaches is that, although western society has prospered, it has become clear that both religion and class have persisted. In this, Marx may have missed the transformative role religion can play in people’s lives (often only when relieved from pressing material need), because his concern was to highlight the extent to which religion as a coping mechanism can derive from the use of religion as a controlling mechanism.* Yet although Marxist approaches may not have offered an adequate explanation, many of the issues Marx was concerned with remain, challenging us to explore.

Marx’s concept of alienation was closely allied to his perception of capitalist systems of production (like their feudal predecessors) as decreasing the available social space for individual self-expression, a point made by Terry Eagleton. Unlike some Marxists, Marx was not a scholar who comprehended society in terms of monolithic, opposed classes but was, instead, a writer, an artist, who appreciated social variety as crucial to individual flowering and who opposed social forces that might hinder it, including (if not especially) the deliberate exercise of power so as to require conformity. Hjelm’s plea for a focus upon the individual and the induction of general rules from the careful, patient study of what people actually say and do is, I suggest, more truly Marxist than many previous (supposedly Marxist) approaches; at the very least, it implies a measure of respect.

  • The distinction between coping and transformative religion is taken from Stringer.

Bibliography

Eagleton, T.: 2011. Why Marx was Right, Yale University Press.

Fairclough, N.: 2010. Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language, Longman, (2nd edn).

Luckmann, T. and Berger, P. L.: 1991. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Penguin.

Rogoff, B.: 1990. Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context, Oxford University Press.

Stringer, M: 2008. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion, Continuum.

Wilson, D. G. M.: forthcoming December 2012. Redefining Shamanism: Spiritualist Mediums and other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes, Continuum/Bloomsbury Academic.

Wooffitt, R.: 2006. The Language of Mediums and Psychics: The Social Organization of Everyday Miracles, Ashgate.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

Titus Hjelm on Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religions

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is indeed the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition, which needs illusions.

This famous quotation from German political philosopher Karl Marx’s unfinished Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843) encapsulates his controversial and complex understanding of the social function of religion. It was a significant part of his theory of alienation – the worker was, in capitalist society, separated from their labour and its products; work had become outside of them, alien. Religion was part of the mechanism by which the bourgeois perpetuated this alienation and therefore the capitalist status quo. Life was unfair, but this was the price of entry into Heaven when you die. As Marx saw it, when the workers were no longer alienated from their work and society made equal, there would be no need for religion, and it would die away.

The theory, and in particular the decontextualised soundbyte, “Religion is the opium of the masses”, was practically a matter of faith among the left-leaning liberal intelligentsia of the 60s and 70s, but the popularity of Marxist analyses of religion (and society in general) lost capital during the 80s and early 90s with the fall of the USSR and the Berlin Wall. What place, then, do his theories have in the contemporary academy, given society’s reawakened concern with inequality? Marx’s theory anticipated both the work of Émile Durkheim, founder of sociology, and an emphasis on power relations which would later be picked up by post-structuralist theorists including Foucault and Bourdieu, all of whom have a profound.influence on contemporary studies of religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

titus hjelmTitus Hjelm is Lecturer in Finnish Society and Culture at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College, London. His doctoral dissertation, at the University of Helsinki, was on the construction of Satanism in the Finnish news media. His research interests are wide-ranging, however, and include the sociology of religion, news media, popular culture (particularly the Nordic heavy metal scene and vampire fiction), and social theory, including Marxist theories. His two most recent books are Perspectives on Social Constructionism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and an edited volume titled Religion and Social Problems (Routledge, 2010). He is also bass guitar player for Thunderstone.

Apologies too for the background noise – we got locked out of our office.

Podcasts

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.  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.

Sociology of Religion – and Religious Studies?

“You got your sociology of religion in my religious studies!” “You got religious studies in my sociology of religion!” – DELICIOUS

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. Does the sociology of religion over-rely on surveys, or could RS benefit from such large-scale data? Is Religious Studies overly-concerned with theory and definitions, or could sociology benefit from a more critically-nuanced approach? Why is it that sociologists seem to have the ear of policy-makers when RS scholars do not?

This episode is the sixth in a series of seven entitled “New Directions in the Sociology of Religion”, co-produced with SOCREL to celebrate their 40th anniversary.

Be sure to check out the other podcasts in this series, such as ‘Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan,  ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie, ‘Researching Radicalisation‘ with Matthew Francis, and ‘Religion, youth, and Intergenerationality‘ with Naomi Thompson.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Wu Tang Clan gear, Cornish sea salt, and more.

 

But Mountains, Dammit!

Titus Hjelm’s book Social Constructionisms: Approaches to the Study of the Human World is a fantastic introduction to the topic of “social constructionism.” Titus successfully demonstrates that this term brings together a plurality of approaches that, although they share a great deal in common, have crucial differences. Perhaps the most admirable feature of Titus’ book is it’s clarity—Titus writes about complicated issues with clear and concise prose, making it perhaps a perfect fit for undergraduate “theory and method” courses in which students must be exposed to these critical approaches.

Since commenting on where we agree is unlikely to be productive or advance the conversation, here in my response I’ll focus on Titus’ criticisms of what he considers more “radical” forms of social constructionism, which he associates with the “excesses” of postmodernism or post-structuralism. Hinting in both the RSP interview and the book that he identifies as a type of critical realist, Titus calls into question those forms of social constructionism that are unabashedly anti-realist. Consider the following statements:

According to some social constructionist views, “we can only reach the world through discourse.” (from the interview)

“If everything is discourse and nothing is real, where is the position we can take to critique those constructions?” (from the interview)

“In their most radical form, these [constructionists] claim that we can know about the human world—and the natural world, for that matter—only through discourse. Any ‘reality’ outside of discourse is either bracketed or denied.” (from the book; 88)

For relativist constructionists, “there is nothing [to the world] beyond our description of it.” (from the book; 92)

For relativists, “there is no ‘reality’ to fall back on.” (from the book; 92)

From the relativist perspective, “the ‘world out there’ and perceptions of the world are radically separated, with no access to the former, except through discourse. It is one thing to say that the meaning of, say, gravity is dependent on our ways of talking about it—a position that constructionists would happily embrace. It is another thing for me to jump out of a sixth story window and assume a safe landing because I’m shouting ‘I’m not falling!’” (from the book; 93)

I find such claims frustrating for two reasons. First, I think that Titus is criticizing the forms of constructionism with which I identify—i.e. he’s targeting me—but I think he unfairly represents my view. Second, I’m also frustrated because some of the constructionists I identify with say exactly the sorts of claims Titus is criticizing. All of that is to say: I think that Titus is aiming at a straw man (are there straw women, I wonder?), but unfortunately a straw man that some of my peers stand behind and prop up. Thus, rather than tear down Titus’s excellent work, let me clarify the difference between my view and the view Titus criticizes.

The main problem, for me, is that although I might be a radical constructionist, I absolutely reject the dualist view of the world Titus is partly working with and partly criticizing. This dualism assumes an opposition between the world-as-it-is-in-and-of-itself and the world within discourse. Discourse apparently is “in here” (but where is “here,” one wonders?), and reality is “out there.” (We’re not far here from the contradictions inherent in Kant’s distinction between phenomena and noumena.) Of course, there is some ambiguity for the social constructionists, insofar as they vacillate between the view that there is a world out there—but we have access to it only through discourse—and the view that there isn’t a world out there—that is, everything, even reality, is discourse. This latter view drops the ontological dualism and turns into a type of discursive monism.

Titus’ view seems to be closer to the dualist view, except without the caveat about being locked within discourse: there is a mind-independent or discourse-independent world “out there,” and we can make objective or authoritative rather than merely subjective or relativist claims about it. Despite the insistence of the radical constructionists, there is a real world out there—we can thump the table or point to the mountains on the horizon dammit! Are we to believe those mountains weren’t here before humans came to name them?! Mountains, dammit! They’re real and they’re mind-independent! (It’s at this point that the radical constructionists ask, “can you say that without discourse?” and then the realists really go apoplectic.)

By the time we get here, we’re far afield from where I’d like the conversation to have headed. What’s crucially been lost at this point—from my perspective at least—is the role of discourse in individuation or definition—i.e., the extension of a concept—and the pragmatic ends of the latter.

The best example I can point to for how discourse has a constitutive role in the individuation of something we tend to take for granted as “natural” in the so-called “real world” is in Edward Schiappa’s discussion of the politics of “wetlands” (see Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning; 2003). In the early 1990s, wetlands were a hot topic. Environmentalists wanted to protect wetlands from developers who wanted to clear the land and build on it, while developers wanted the opposite. President George H. W. Bush signed into legislation a bill protecting wetlands from development, but the legislation redefined wetlands in ways that suited the interests of the developers rather than the environmentalists. Wetlands were protected, but there was a bait-and-switch of sorts: the land to which the concept “wetland” extended shrunk dramatically with the novel definition in the new legislation. Both parties used the concept “wetland,” but they individuated something rather different, and—in addition—that to which their concept extended was directly tied to their social or political interests. Schiappa concludes, “definitions are interest-driven and saturated with questions of power and persuasion.”

I think that Titus’ framing of “radical constructionism” fails in helping us to understand Schiappa’s view. First, by no means is Schiappa saying that there’s a world within discourse and then a world out there. For Schiappa, the existence of wetlands is contingent upon the definition we give to the term; if we change the definition of wetland we have a different reality out there to deal with—just as gerrymandered districts are quite literally different districts than before they were gerrymandered. There’s no “reality” of wetlands without first having individuated some types of land as wetland and other types of land as not-wetland. Second, neither is Schiappa saying that all we have access to is the world of discourse. “Wetlands” are constituted by discourse, but that’s not the same thing as saying that wetlands are discourse. Third, it wouldn’t make sense to say that “wetlands” exist independent of discourse; it is we, as humans, who separate this from that, wetlands from not-wetlands, and so on, depending on our interests.

But what about mountains, dammit? Weren’t they there before humans evolved to identify them as mountains? To press the realist position, let me ask: did the state of New York exist before humans came along to identify it as such? Even the realist would have to admit: New York is a human invention—the distinctions between “New York” and “Massachusetts” and “Pennsylvania” aren’t natural, but are lines we as humans draw in the sand. That is, even the realist has to admit that the individuation or extension of “New York” is discursive. But then to press the realist further: what about the Adirondack Mountains? Do the mountains individuate themselves from the land we consider not-mountainous? Or do we, as humans, individuate them for our purposes?

We could of course individuate the stuff of the world in ways that intersect with but don’t exactly match the extension of the term “Adirondack Mountains.” No doubt there are “streams” in the mountains, “hiking paths” over them, “bear hunting grounds” across them, “good fishing areas” in them, and so forth. In addition, whichever discursive concepts we use to slice up the stuff of the Adirondacks will depend on our particular pragmatic interests—do we want fish for dinner? to avoid running across bears? a challenging hike?

In addition, were our interests different—or were we different kinds of animals—no doubt we would individuate our world differently. Does an ant in the Adirondacks see a “mountain”? Is a “mountain” a useful concept for something as small as an insect? If there were alien creatures whose walking stride was the same as the distance from our sun to Pluto, would they have a use for individuating the “Adirondack Mountains”? On the contrary, what we might individuate as the Adirondacks would likely be nothing other than dust on the shoes of their feet, not worth individuation or attention. As some cognitive linguists have noted–for instance, in Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987) or Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh (1999)–what is useful for us to individuate is relative to the type of bodies we are in: “How animals categorize depends on their sensing apparatus and their ability to move themselves and manipulate objects. Categorization is therefore a consequence of how we are embodied” (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 17-18).

All of this is to say: crucial for understanding so-called radical social constructionism is the pragmatic function of concepts in individuating the stuff of the world. At bottom, drawing lines between mountains and streams is little different than drawing lines between New York and Massachusetts. And, on this view, the practice of discursive or conceptual individuation neither gets between us and the real world, nor do the things of the world exist as “things” independently of our individuation of them as particular things.

Social Constructionism

What is social constructionism, and how is it important to the study of religion? In this interview, Titus Hjelm tells David Robertson about social constructionism – that is, a set of approaches which see social realities as built from language, rather than reflecting ontological realities. Hjelm outlines how these approaches emerged as part of the ‘linguistic turn’ in the social sciences more broadly, as well as pointing to some different interpretations of how these constructivist, discursive or critical approaches operate. Their importance, he suggests, is in challenging how we think about ontology, epistemology and power.

sui generis thing-in-itself, rather than a product of human culture. Despite – or because – of this, constructionism has not been broadly adopted as a theoretical approach in the field.

For much more on the subject, see Hjelm’s recent book Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religions. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, Finnish metal CDs, fishing tackle, and more.

Marx, Spiritualism and Power

By David G. M. Wilson, Edinburgh.

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 20 June 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Titus Hjelm on “Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion” (18 June 2012).

Titus Hjelm and Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion

I begin this response to Titus Hjelm’s discussion of the continuing relevance of Marxist approaches to the study of religion by noting his assertion that Marx is underemployed as a source of ideas, partly because he has generally been regarded as critical of religion. A number of additional reasons are also relevant. One difficulty for Marxist scholars has been the extent to which the predictive power of Marxist models was brought into question as the twentieth century unfolded. Yet many of Marx’s particular criticisms are not only relevant to western society of his day but continue to be relevant because of their ability to highlight the extent to which particular classes (or constituencies) are still able to maintain powerful social positions. The problems and characteristics of western society that were highlighted by Marxist approaches are still with us; if the predictive power of Marxist approaches has seemed problematic, this may simply be an indication that our understanding of the mechanisms involved has been partial.

Any plea for the continuing relevance of Marx is also a plea for the continuing importance of the sociological study of religion, of attending to the many aspects of the relationships that human beings maintain with each other. In the past, this stance has often relied upon insights derived from the core Marxist idea of class struggle, which has generally led scholars to focus upon collective behaviour. As Hjelm indicates, one possible response is to pay closer attention to the socially constructed ways in which human beings individually behave, and he mentions Peter Berger as a scholar using the Marxist concept of alienation to explore through critical discourse analysis the ways in which ideologies (including the teachings of particular religious traditions) maintain themselves (Norman Fairclough). The argument, essentially, is that there is progress to be made in understanding the mechanisms involved by examining particular examples.

This is an approach that may also offer insights relevant to the cognitive study of religion; for example, it may be possible to draw upon the work of scholars such as Barbara Rogoff, who explores human cognition as a socially constructed learning outcome. I am often heard making the argument that adherence to religious (and other) traditions can usefully be comprehended as an apprenticeship outcome, but in order to understand fully what I mean by this, it is important to attend not only to the linguistic dialogues people maintain with each other but also to their other behavioural dialogues. Rogoff’s emphasis upon human cognition as the outcome of an apprenticeship based upon guided participation is extremely valuable here. The human ability to think, to problem-solve, is acquired from those who have power over us during the years when we begin to come to consciousness. Hjelm is wise, therefore, to ask why social class (or other social constituency) tends not to be explored in religion, given that it has long been recognized that class and power are closely-connected.

This nexus of issues is particularly relevant to my own scholarly interests, which focus upon western mediumship as my particular specialism within spirit communication traditions, particularly shamanism. Spiritualism is often described as a ‘working-class religion’, based upon scholarly characterization of those who generally attend demonstrations of mediumship. It tends also to be described as ‘marginal’, even though scholars such as Martin Stringer suggest that resort to mediums and psychics is a widespread form of engagement with the ‘non-empirical’ in contemporary western society, something he regards as central to what religion is ‘about’. The marginality of Spiritualism lies not in a lack of those practising and/or interested but in its marginalization by more dominant discourses. It is not only more powerful religious discourses that are guilty here: the number of western scholars willing to conduct research in this field is small, a situation that is both the product of past marginalization and an effective way of ensuring continuing marginalization.

There is obvious scope for exploring the exclusion of Spiritualism as a class issue, but there is also scope for exploring the relationships within the Spiritualist movement in terms of the different constituencies, as I call them, that subsist within it. My own forthcoming book undertakes a certain amount of work here, exploring the institution of mediumship and how that craft is learned as being central to the maintenance of the Spiritualist movement. I also draw attention to Robin Wooffitt’s work ‘The Language of Mediums and Psychics’ as a valuable example of critical dialogue analysis, exploring the maintenance of mediumistic authority vis-à-vis clients, reminding us that ‘class’ distinctions are maintained within (as well as among) religious traditions, precisely because this is key to the maintenance of authority. Comprehending the internal exercise of power (between different classes or categories of practitioner or adherent) can be crucial in understanding the persistence of particular religious traditions, and may therefore be an important component in understanding the persistence of religion generally in a supposedly secularized western society.

Hjelm notes as classically Marxist the suggestion that more welfare (in the sense of material wellbeing) should lead to less religion, based upon the perception that if peoples’ material needs are met in this world, they become less interested in the next. A difficulty for traditional Marxist approaches is that, although western society has prospered, it has become clear that both religion and class have persisted. In this, Marx may have missed the transformative role religion can play in people’s lives (often only when relieved from pressing material need), because his concern was to highlight the extent to which religion as a coping mechanism can derive from the use of religion as a controlling mechanism.* Yet although Marxist approaches may not have offered an adequate explanation, many of the issues Marx was concerned with remain, challenging us to explore.

Marx’s concept of alienation was closely allied to his perception of capitalist systems of production (like their feudal predecessors) as decreasing the available social space for individual self-expression, a point made by Terry Eagleton. Unlike some Marxists, Marx was not a scholar who comprehended society in terms of monolithic, opposed classes but was, instead, a writer, an artist, who appreciated social variety as crucial to individual flowering and who opposed social forces that might hinder it, including (if not especially) the deliberate exercise of power so as to require conformity. Hjelm’s plea for a focus upon the individual and the induction of general rules from the careful, patient study of what people actually say and do is, I suggest, more truly Marxist than many previous (supposedly Marxist) approaches; at the very least, it implies a measure of respect.

  • The distinction between coping and transformative religion is taken from Stringer.

Bibliography

Eagleton, T.: 2011. Why Marx was Right, Yale University Press.

Fairclough, N.: 2010. Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language, Longman, (2nd edn).

Luckmann, T. and Berger, P. L.: 1991. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Penguin.

Rogoff, B.: 1990. Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context, Oxford University Press.

Stringer, M: 2008. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion, Continuum.

Wilson, D. G. M.: forthcoming December 2012. Redefining Shamanism: Spiritualist Mediums and other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes, Continuum/Bloomsbury Academic.

Wooffitt, R.: 2006. The Language of Mediums and Psychics: The Social Organization of Everyday Miracles, Ashgate.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

Titus Hjelm on Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religions

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is indeed the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition, which needs illusions.

This famous quotation from German political philosopher Karl Marx’s unfinished Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843) encapsulates his controversial and complex understanding of the social function of religion. It was a significant part of his theory of alienation – the worker was, in capitalist society, separated from their labour and its products; work had become outside of them, alien. Religion was part of the mechanism by which the bourgeois perpetuated this alienation and therefore the capitalist status quo. Life was unfair, but this was the price of entry into Heaven when you die. As Marx saw it, when the workers were no longer alienated from their work and society made equal, there would be no need for religion, and it would die away.

The theory, and in particular the decontextualised soundbyte, “Religion is the opium of the masses”, was practically a matter of faith among the left-leaning liberal intelligentsia of the 60s and 70s, but the popularity of Marxist analyses of religion (and society in general) lost capital during the 80s and early 90s with the fall of the USSR and the Berlin Wall. What place, then, do his theories have in the contemporary academy, given society’s reawakened concern with inequality? Marx’s theory anticipated both the work of Émile Durkheim, founder of sociology, and an emphasis on power relations which would later be picked up by post-structuralist theorists including Foucault and Bourdieu, all of whom have a profound.influence on contemporary studies of religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

titus hjelmTitus Hjelm is Lecturer in Finnish Society and Culture at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College, London. His doctoral dissertation, at the University of Helsinki, was on the construction of Satanism in the Finnish news media. His research interests are wide-ranging, however, and include the sociology of religion, news media, popular culture (particularly the Nordic heavy metal scene and vampire fiction), and social theory, including Marxist theories. His two most recent books are Perspectives on Social Constructionism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and an edited volume titled Religion and Social Problems (Routledge, 2010). He is also bass guitar player for Thunderstone.

Apologies too for the background noise – we got locked out of our office.