Sociological Theory and the Question of Religion

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Andrew McKinnon, Marta Trzebiatowska
Theology and Religion in Interdisciplinary Perspective Series in Association With the BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group
  • New York, NY: 
    Ashgate Publishing
    , December
     274 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sociological Theory and the Question of Religion had its inception in the 2011 SocRel conference of the British Sociological Association. However, the editors are justified in claiming that the book should not be taken as a “transcription of events and discussions” at the conference (11). The content of the volume is evidence enough of its import and erudition beyond the usual collection of conference proceedings. That the various contributors took pride in, and time with, their essays is obvious, and while the collection does address the present status and future viability of the sociology of religion just as the conference did, Sociological Theory and the Question of Religion is much more than scholarly reflection and lamentation.

The volume begins with an introduction by editors Andrew McKinnon and Marta Trzebiatowska before proceeding into the first of five parts. The introduction highlights both the place of religion in the classics of the field of sociology and the current state of sociology in Britain. The latter is a useful overview of potentially regrettable developments such as sociologists failing to take religion seriously and the sociology of religion existing primarily as a sub-discipline of religious studies rather than being housed in sociology departments. A discussion of religion in the work of sociology’s founding fathers is almost obligatory, and the editors clearly drew from some of the less familiar texts to avoid offering yet another hackneyed survey of Max Weber and Émile Durkheim. Of course, there is risk in “fresh” takes on classic figures. In this case, readers may find it somewhat unsettling that secondary sources are cited to support the suggestion that Weber had an essentially functional definition of religion, ignoring that he is much more frequently noted either for his avoidance of definitions or for having intimated a substantive one. Even with shortcomings—like its omission of Georg Simmel despite Dominika Motak’s excellent chapter (“Religion and Monetary Culture in the Sociology of Georg Simmel”) on his classic work—the introduction successfully lays a foundation for the remainder of the volume.

Part 1 consists of two chapters by eminent sociologists of religion in the United Kingdom: Grace Davie and Steve Bruce. For those familiar with her work, the beginning of Davie’s chapter (“Thinking Sociologically About Religion: A Step Change in the Debate?”) is recognizable as she describes some of the dilemmas facing sociologists of religion in light of religion’s resilience in the contemporary world. Yet, her “New Initiatives” and “New Questions” sections bring the conversation into the twenty-first century and offer significant insights, such as her observation that European secularization has continued at the same time that “religion has re-entered the public square in new and unexpected ways” resulting in a paradoxical lack of religious literacy (29). Bruce’s chapter (“What Sort of Social Theory Would Benefit the Sociology of Religion?”) is also characteristically perceptive (and provocative) as he delineates four “tendencies” in social theory before highlighting the usefulness of the fourth: “social-scientific explanation.” Along the way, Bruce offers an arguably overdue skewering of much of what passes as “theories of religion” today.

The book’s second and third sections (“History and Religion” and “Religion and Modernity”) analyze the overlap between sociological theory, religion, and the historical moorings of both from a variety of angles. Bryan Turner’s essay on the “axial age” thesis and its fit within classical and contemporary sociology is a shining example of the broad but responsible analysis called for in the opening pages of the book. Indeed, he blurs the lines between sociology generally, and the sociology of religion specifically, while investigating the work of Robert Bellah in conversation with classic sociological studies of Asian religion. Likewise, David Lehmann’s chapter on “Hope and Religion” serves as a good example of theoretically-informed sociological work that is confident enough to avoid the need for a miniature disciplinary history. What is more, Lehmann supplements his study of popular religion with a clear and original look at the overlapping concepts of ritual and exchange. In the fifth chapter, Andrew McKinnon engages not with the “axial age” but with another grand historical thesis: Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Process (1978). McKinnon offers a critique of Elias’s work, illuminating the error of the latter’s disregard for the role of religion in history.

“Religion and Modernity” confronts the reader with two very different essays relating sociology, religion, and the modern era. Dominika Motak’s chapter on Simmel adds cohesion to the volume by including the notion of exchange as one of its themes, much as is done by Lehmann in chapter 4. Again, just as Lehmann’s chapter offers unique insights into ritual, so Motak constructs a fresher, fuller understanding of Simmel’s sociological agenda than is typically the case. Simmel was concerned with particular aspects of modernity, but Andrew Dawson’s essay (“Putting Baby Back in the Bath”) is an attempt to recover or retain the whole notion of modernity in the first place. He suggests “cosmopolitan sociology” as a solution to the problem posed by championing the “multiple modernities” paradigm—an outlook that Dawson claims suffers from “granular provincialism.” Ultimately, Dawson believes in the analytical salience of modernity as a concept and argues that “multiple modernities” lacks the coherence it purportedly provides.

Parts 4 and 5 of the book then address or exemplify methods and theories of particular resonance in the contemporary social sciences. From Anne Margit Løvland and Pål Repstad’s blend of ethnography and social-scientific explanation of the “aestheticization” of religion in Norway to Marta Trzebiatowska’s evaluation of Bourdieu on gender and religion, the final four chapters nicely capture the diversity of approaches and phenomena that are rightfully analyzed by the sociology of religion. In fact, Trzebiatowska’s contribution joins Titus Hjelm’s (an argument for the role of critical discourse analysis in sustaining a critical sociology of religion) in orienting sociologists of religion toward the future without abandoning the theoretical insights of the past.

Indeed, throughout its eleven chapters, Sociological Theory grapples with its mammoth task—exploring and reappraising the relationship of sociological theory to the topic of religion—with finesse and wisdom. Those involved should be credited with producing an unusually insightful volume out of diverse essays and perspectives. Of course, the edited collection as an academic genre sometimes succumbs to its own inherent challenges. Such shortcomings are few in this volume and are mostly to do with its massive scope and specialist audience. For example, the book suffers from a lack of flow (after part 1 the remaining chapters could have been included in any order), and a conclusion would have benefitted the volume immensely. More specifically, Lehmann’s chapter will likely strike theologians and historians as containing a few too many sweeping generalizations regarding Christian theology, and Anna Strhan’s ethnographic study of “listening” in an evangelical Christian church in London (chapter 9) not only offers arguably unfounded extrapolations about evangelicalism generally, but also struggles more than the other contributions to demonstrate the way in which her method and data fit within broader theoretical discussions of sociology.

In the end, however, this volume is a rare example of consonance between intended objectives, final content, and relevance. Numerous organizations, including the American Academy of Religion and the International Sociological Association, have recently convened meetings and produced publications addressing the current state of the sociology of religion, and this is perhaps the best of the lot. It is highly recommended for sociologists, anthropologists, scholars of religion, and others interested in the role of religious studies in the twenty-first century.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adam J. Powell is Junior Research Fellow in Theology and Religion at Durham University, UK.

Date of Review: 
October 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew McKinnon is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Aberdeen. He has published in numerous journals, particularly on the topic of religion and social theory. He is a member of the Editorial Boards of Sociology (Official Journal of the British Sociological Association) and the book series Critical Research in Religion; he is an Associate Editor of both The Canadian Journal of Sociology and of Sociology of Religion.

Marta Trzebiatowska is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Aberdeen. Her research interests include religion and gender, migration and social theory. She has published in the Journal of Contemporary Religion and Sociology. Her recent book (co-authored with Steve Bruce) explores the universal gender gap in religiosity (Why Are Women More Religious Than Men? 2012).


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