The Rise and Future Demise of the Sociology of Religion

I told you it was a trap!

There’s been a lot of recent discussion in various places about the state of the subfield of the sociology of religion.  David Smilde does a good job of marking out areas of progress and concern in his working paper.  For the most part, I agree with the basic problems identified by Levitt, Bender, Cadge and Smilde in their paper outline the potential of the field. However, I’m a little less optimistic about the future trajectory of the subfield, and about the capacity of American sociology to pull off some of the important things which should be done to make the sociology of religion more relevant for a diverse global world, and across a more sophisticated array of sociological questions.

First, interdiscplinary connections need to proceed with caution. Comparative historical sociology is sociology, not comparative religion. We do need more strong comparative and historical sociological studies, but these also need to be grounded in contemporary sociological theory and examined using sociological methodologies.  We need  sociological studies with actual qualitative and quantitative data on historical issues, armed with relevant general sociological theories to model elaborations of history.  In any case, where are all of these comparative historical sociologists and ethnographers who can speak Urdu or Gujarati or Farsi or Arabic or Nepali? Where are the active research centers conducting social scientific research on religion? For that matter, how many sociology programs have an active training program for comparative historical sociology? How many PhD’s in sociology pursue this type of a dissertation? I’m among the failures in this enterprise. My first dissertation proposal was a comparative study of religious influences on political exclusion in Israel and South Africa…only I didn’t speak Dutch or Hebrew….

What are our structural resources for breaking down the euro-focused view of religion? In the United States, we have a serious recession in most public and many private universities. Travel and research grants have pretty much disappeared, particularly the type which allow scholars to coordinate international research. International extensions are being eliminated, and exchange programs are no longer funded and are dying out.  If you don’t have your own money (from public or private grants), you’ll be doing global research on your own dime.  What about public research grants? Well, how much is the total sociology  NSF budget? You may get lucky and get the religion set-aside from NSF.  But, it won’t be much. Good luck!  Ah, but you say there’s NICHD? NIH? NIMH? Really? Only for people who do health research, first of all. NICHD, NIH, NIMH are very interested in research demonstrating the positive impact of Christianity on American health issues (especially under the Bush regime, but it seems to have continued). If you’re a public bureaucracy in the US, you can’t fund research showing bad things about religion! If religion doesn’t have a positive outcome, health funding agencies don’t want to deal with it.

Then, there are the private funding agencies like Lilly and Templeton. They are deeply and earnestly interested in mapping the contours and charting the influences of diverse religious expressions throughout the globe.  Yeah, right. Maybe a little comparative funding, so long as you’re talking about Christians. Preferably Christians who were converted from indigenous traditions by American missionaries.  You know. Christians in China, Christians in India, Christians in Uganda…We want to know the positive impact of our missions to the heathen….but other than that, Lilly, Templeton, and their ilk are only interested in studies of the positive impact of Christianity in the United States.

So, let’s say we have two advanced graduate students…One sold her car and worked as a bartender during coursework to fund a 9 month research trip on Hindu-Buddhist conflict and gender backlash in rural Nepal. The second interned at the Heritage foundation and received a $35k dissertation grant from the Templeton Foundation which funded her (sorry) His study of the positive effects of religion on college completion.  The comparativist’s dissertation adviser thinks her infatuation with religion is a little weird, and that she needs to read more Jeffery Paige on social movements and the structure of rice production. The Christian conservative graduate student was shepherded as an undergraduate by a conservative Christian funding agency into a graduate program with a strong and well-funded senior scholar with   religious commitments.  Upon graduation, the comparativist is heavily in debt from travel and research expenses, and she gets a job at a small liberal arts college–and takes on additional teaching and editing responsibilities to make extra money. The Christian guy lands a job at a major state supported university and is named as a co-PI on a million dollar grant from Lilly or Templeton, and publications pour out from graduate school collaborations with coreligionists.  The comparativist struggles to transcribe interviews and revise the dissertation for a book, and maybe turn a few chapters into articles, but her university has no travel money and going to the meetings is a serious financial burden. She writes a textbook to help pay the bills, even though she doesn’t have tenure, and teaches every summer term.  He gets three months summer salary and a permanent course reduction negotiated for his grant (even though it only pays 10% overhead…).  She busts her ass and manages tenure at Liberal Arts College, and every few years she manages to squirrel away enough research time to make a really nice contribution to scholarship (but, it’s hard to get back to Nepal…).  He becomes a named chair at Big Fucking U, who marveled at his enormous grants.

I’m thinking the future of the sociology of religion is looking marginalized.

Hoping to be wrong.

Gee, we need some Sheep….

One Response to “The Rise and Future Demise of the Sociology of Religion”

  1. The Decline of Religion in American Higher Education « Iranianredneck’s Weblog Says:

    […] things looked good there back in 1999 when Ellison and I were surveying the field, now….things look like they are spiraling back downward. I’m no longer a member of the Religious Research Association and I used to co-edit their […]

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