Alternative Sociologies of Religion

Through Non-Western Eyes

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James V. Spickard
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , March
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The discipline of sociology, including the subdiscipline of the sociology of religion, arose within the West, incorporating certain Western assumptions into its outlook. These assumptions shape the sociologists’ field of vision, helping us to observe certain details regarding religion and religious behavior, while also obscuring other details. In his book, Alternative Sociologies of Religion, James V. Spickard engages in “an act of imagination” (18)—envisioning what the sociology of religion would look like if it had arisen in non-Western societies.

Spickard begins by tracing the development of sociology in the West to show the sorts of assumptions about religion, which are inherent in the field, and how they came to be so. Such “default” assumptions cause sociologists to focus too heavily on institutional forms of religion such as belief and church membership, and thereby problematizing things like declining membership and individual spirituality. Spickard’s proposal is that we “expand our disciplinary toolkit—to supplement established ways of thinking with other ideas drawn from other histories, eras, and cultures” (19). He chooses three particular views of religion to accomplish this vision. Using two chapters for each, he first covers the concept and teaching, and then applies the concept in the next chapter.

First, he takes us to Confucian China and the creation of a sacred community. From this example, he demonstrates that religion is not just something which happens in institutionalized places, but is part of everyday life; that the level of sociological analysis should not be solely on the individual—beliefs, morals, etc.—but also about relationships; and that there is no need to distinguish between the sacred and the secular—an idea common to early sociologists such as Émile Durkheim. By using Chinese religion as a basis for the sociology of religion, Spickard proposes that we recognize that relational ties are supported largely by the work of women who, for instance, provide church dinners, rather than the religious specialists who usually get the “credit.” He only briefly acknowledges the irony of this possible insight, given that “Chinese culture, in general, and Confucianism, in particular, are not known for their good treatment of women” (125). While this is no small problem—and perhaps this issue of relationality might better be addressed by feminist sociologies of religion—Spickard offers two other insights that we might glean from Confucianism. First, that Chinese religion might give us a positive lens through which to view personal spirituality, as opposed to the negative individualism of Bellah’s “Sheilaism” (126). And second, that Chinese religion might give us a positive lens through which to view tradition, as opposed to Max Weber’s ideal type, which devalued tradition as a type of inertia—something deficient when compared to modern society (73-74, 132).

Next, Spikard concentrates on an individual—the North African Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun, and the relationship between religion and ethnicity. Ibn Khaldun’s view of religion is not one of belief or institution, but rather, of social solidarity. Traditionally kept separate in sociology textbooks, religion and ethnicity are often linked, and both provide a form of social solidarity—though not necessarily in the way imagined by Durkheim. Ibn Khaldun’s view of history does not steer us toward a progressive view of history, with a disruption between the traditional and the modern, but emphasizes cycles in the rise and fall of peoples. He demonstrates how the solidarity provided by religion and ethnicity can be utilized by those who have faced the “rigors of life” as they seek to overthrow a regime. Spickard uses this technique to analyze such modern-day events as the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the more recent rise of ISIL—in each case showing how ethnically disaffected groups utilized religion to attempt political aims.

Third, Spickard covers Navajo rituals and the role of rituals in generating community healing. He explains rituals as performances or pronouncements which create reality, such as reenacting the creation of an orderly universe in order to effect a return to such orderliness. He explains that rituals are experienced by both the performers and the “audience” together. They depend on a particular series of patterned, temporal actions—words, gestures, songs, etc. The movement of the action pulls the participants’ attention and senses this way and that—creating, experiencing, becoming. Spickard then uses these insights to analyze the rituals at the weekly house Masses held by a Catholic Worker community in East Los Angeles.

Finally, Spickard focuses a chapter on the ethics of his project. He distinguishes what he is doing from the practice of cultural appropriation, which he defines as “copying … other people’s practices, either in order to profit from them … or in order to make fun of their former owners” (246). Instead, he attempts to honor these historical-cultural traditions, locating the ideas within their proper context, while trying to show that they contain useful insights beyond that original milieu. He does not claim that these traditions are perfect or that these insights should replace traditional sociological viewpoints but rather, that sociologists would benefit from having these additional tools in our theoretical toolkit. This book’s “root idea” is “that different historical-cultural traditions see certain aspects of religion more clearly than they see others” (225)—and, therefore, we benefit from being able to see things from additional angles.

Spickard’s book offers a challenge to traditional sociological epistemology. It will be of interest to anyone interested in contemporary sociological theory of the study of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

V. Jacquette Rhoades is instructor of sociology at Rhodes State College.

Date of Review: 
June 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James V. Spickard is professor of sociology & anthropology at the University of Redlands, in California, where he teaches courses on research design and methods, social theory, the sociology of religion, homelessness, and world hunger.  Most of his research focuses on the role that religion plays in contemporary society.  He also investigates movements for social change.  He has written or edited several books, most recently on non-Western sociological theory, on the transnational dynamics of African Pentecostalism, on social statistics, and on reflexive ethnography.  


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