Evangelicals and sociology: possibilities

The last two posts have explored the patterns in how evangelicals approach sociology and the problems with those patterns. In the third post of the series, here are some ways that evangelicals can begin to solve the problems they have with sociology:

  1. Encourage more conservative Protestants to study, read, and apply sociology. If evangelicals are serious about engaging society, a better understanding of social groups and interactions could prove very helpful. For example, ministry work is more than just theological knowledge and often involves much interaction with people. Couldn’t a required sociology course help prepare Christians going into all fields to better love their neighbors?
  2. Don’t just cherry-pick sociological findings that confirm an evangelical perspective. This is difficult for any group or individual to do as we tend to seek out information that supports our view of the world. However, interacting with sociological work beyond what immediately seems useful would be a good thing.
  3. In recent decades, there have been a number of respected Christians doing sociology whose work is well regarded in the discipline. At the same time, I don’t think sociology as a field has had a transformative figure for conservative Protestants like a James Dobson in psychology. I don’t know the full history of psychology but the field became safe for evangelicals because one of their own helped them see it differently. (Psychology might be unique in other ways; since it is less interested than sociology in groups and societies, psychology might fit better with an individualistic approach favored by evangelicals.)
  4. Develop a stronger idea of what Christian engagement with sociology would be. The approach should be developed further than Christians simply doing sociology or Christians doing work that supports Christian perspectives.
  5. Strive to see the world from a structural perspective. While this may be unusual for many American conservative Protestants, one way to do this would be to try to read the Bible the way those who originally read it would read it. Western modern notions of individuality were not really in play for the original recipients of the sacred texts. Another option to combat the individualistic perspective would be to listen more to Christians around the world who share theological beliefs but interpret scripture through a more structural lens.

In sum, the divide between sociology and conservative Protestantism is not an unbridgeable one even as the two groups often have different purposes and see the world from different perspectives (structural vs. individual, politically liberal vs. politically conservative).

Note: these observations are based on years of interaction with conservative Protestant congregations, institutions, sermons, media, and individuals.

 

Evangelicals and sociology: problems

Yesterday, I discussed five patterns I’ve observed in how evangelicals interact with sociology. Here are some problems with these patterns:

  1. The patterns ignore significant areas of research that affect the lives of evangelicals and their organizations on a daily basis. This ranges from research on organizations (why do so many churches and organizations try to reinvent the wheel?) to social problems that evangelicals hope to address (such as development, poverty, health issues, etc.).
  2. Sociology could help evangelicals address certain blind spots. For example, numerous academics as well as evangelicals have written about the group’s problem with race and how an individualistic approach fails to appropriately grapple with structural realities. Sociology written by Christians and non-Christians could help evangelicals move forward in this area.
  3. Sociologists are also interested in the improvement of society. Thus, casting them as enemies may create unnecessary with people who could be helpful to evangelical causes. Evangelicals, more so than fundamentalists, want to engage society. In recent decades in the United States, this has involved taking more public roles and pushing for certain policies and behaviors (at a variety of levels from the federal government to non-profit organizations). Sociologists may have some different end goals than evangelicals but both want to engage society and not succumb to societal apathy and withdrawal. Are there areas in which sociologists and evangelicals could partner (outside of the typical culture war or conservative issues to which evangelicals devote much attention)?
  4. The suspicion of sociology tells evangelicals that is an area unworthy of study. This is odd given the group’s claims that God can work through everything (including non-Christians), there are concepts like common grace, and all truth is God’s truth.
  5. Conservative Protestants sometimes have a limited interest in seeing society as complex and difficult to understand. They can often be reductionistic about social ills, attributing the issues to sin (even as the various forms of sin as well as the consequences can be multifaceted) or bad individuals.

Tomorrow: possible solutions to these problems.

Note: these observations are based on years of interaction with conservative Protestant congregations, institutions, sermons, media, and individuals.

Evangelicals and sociology: patterns

Based on my experiences with conservative Protestants, discussions of sociologists or sociological research tends to follow several patterns. (A typical caveat applies: these are not true in all circumstances.) Here are some ways this plays out:

  1. Sociological work on religion tends to be cited more than the work of other subfields. This makes sense for people of faith yet fails to acknowledge the place of sociology of religion within the discipline of sociology (it is a low priority and not very influential) and ignores a lot of useful work in other areas.
  2. Sociologists who are known conservative Protestants or Christians receive a lot of attention. This includes people like James Davison Hunter, Christian Smith, Mark Regnerus, and Peter Berger. It is as if their status as Christians makes their work (a) safer – they are not secular researchers – and/or (b) more valid – they are insiders who understand what it is to be a person of faith and the threats evangelicals face.
  3. Sociological research that supports evangelical perspectives is championed. The work of James Hunter on the culture wars is a good example: as a religious group that wishes to engage society, Hunter helped evangelicals make sense of the broader American cultural landscape and the forces they perceived as pushing against them. Another example is Christian Smith’s work on moral therapeutic deism: Smith’s suggestion that many American emerging adults have a vague and self-serving religiosity fits with the evangelical view that many Americans need a stronger and more exclusive faith. A third example involves research that could be used to support nuclear families and abstinence outside of marriage such as research undertaken by Mark Regnerus and Brad Wilcox.
  4. Sociological research can be useful for pragmatic purposes including bringing people to faith and growing the church. Pastors, in particular, are often interested in wanting to interpret societal trends for their congregation and sociologists can help identify these trends (though this is often restricted to #2 and #3). Outside of particular evangelical aims, sociological research may have little use.
  5. Outside of the way sociology is used as identified in the four patterns above, sociology is often perceived as a field full of liberals, secularists , and postmodernists who if are not actively hostile to conservative Christianity are to be at least held at arm’s length.

On the whole, these patterns appear to serve one purpose: to further the perspectives already held by conservative Protestants. Sociology is a tool that can be used to support the aims and beliefs of people of faith. But, a conservative Protestant must choose wisely which aspects of sociology to apply.

Tomorrow: the problems with these patterns.

Note: these observations are based on years of interaction with conservative Protestant congregations, institutions, sermons, media, and individuals.

Nashville police chief: crime fighting more about psychology, sociology

At a recent Nashville City Council meeting, the police chief explain what it takes to fight crime today:

After a recent spike in Nashville’s gun violence, Police Chief Steve Anderson and Health Director Bill Paul, appeared before the Metro Council Tuesday night. They discussed the numbers behind the shootings and how the city plans to combat them…

At the meeting, Chief Anderson outlined the statistics, but he also talked about the complexity of modern policing when it comes to gun violence, which disproportionally impacts poor minority residents.

“Police work has turned into more psychology and sociology than actually crime fighting. So that is where we all need to be,” Anderson said.

If only a broader set of civic leaders and the American public would pick up these ideas. To make such suggestions sometimes meets the counterargument that explanation like this excuse or condone the behavior. Not so: a better understanding of the social science behind crime should help communities alleviate the conditions that lead to crime rather than try to play whack-a-mole.

Going further with the police: does this mean Nashville police receive training based on psychology and sociology research? How does the force as a whole leverage this research? For example, the Chicago police force has been working with social network data to identify who is likely to be involved in or affected by crime.

At the least, the police and the public could follow a suggestion one of my colleagues made several years ago:

Our nation is only becoming more complex and diverse. We need police prepared to interact with complex and diverse people. Training in tactical procedures and weapon use, without a comparable ability for the police to think differently, learn quickly, and engage complexity is an invitation for more chaos.

Liberal arts graduates, if you want to make a difference in the world, consider this: become a cop.

 

A sociologist goes to the Urban History Association meetings, Part One

I attended and presented at the Urban History Association biennial meetings this weekend and I made some observations during my foray. Some thoughts:

  1. In the last five years or so, I’ve been to both specialist conferences – usually involving the sociology of religion – and general conferences – the American Sociological Association. They each have their perks. I particularly enjoyed two things about the specialty aspect of the UHA meetings: (1) it was nice to be with a group of scholars who shared a common set of readings and understandings of a particular social phenomena and (2) the smaller size seemed to allow for more conversations during and after sessions. Even though the conference drew attendees largely from R1 schools – and people from liberal arts colleges like myself were in short supply and tended to be from the Chicago area – it felt pretty inviting.
  2. Several quick observations on the discipline of history as I saw it practiced:
    -There was a tension between particular cases – micro history – and broad sweeping generalizations about social patterns. The micro history could be quite minute, perhaps focusing on a particular influential figure (or arguing why that figure should be viewed as influential) or brief time period while other papers and sessions focused on 50+ years or emphasized broader movements like modernism. Individual papers tended toward the micro while panels could think more broadly. I would guess that at least a few of the papers are part of larger works – dissertations, manuscripts – that touch on broader periods or forces.
    -There was an informal dress code for male attendees: dress shirt and jacket. Not everyone followed this but there were more sports coats and blazers than at the typical sociological gathering.
    -Race, class, and gender popped up now and then but this trinity of analysis wasn’t as present as at sociological meetings.
    -There were some interesting instances of trying to connect historical events to current events, particularly in a panel on Silicon Valley. But, often the papers stuck to their particular historical moment.
    -Almost every paper began with a story or anecdote from history. This is more acceptable with qualitative sociological work but rarer in sociology as a whole.
    -Every introduction I saw included a short bio of the scholar’s education and work. Sociologists rarely give this information. Does this suggest that pedigree is more important for the audience or do they benefit from having more information regarding the speaker?
  3. I realize that now eight years into my post-graduate school career, I feel much more comfortable at conferences. I had met only two of the conference attendees prior to the meetings but it was easier to introduce myself to others and participate when I had questions. During graduate school, I remember this being more difficult: who wants to talk to a lowly graduate student? My enjoyment of conferences has gone up as I feel like I have a leg to stand on (I have published works that people can read) and I feel like I can contribute (I’ve wrestled with a number of issues in my own work and in the classroom). These two factors work in another way: even as I do some urban history work, I likely would not have attended this meeting without receiving an invitation from the organizer of a session to submit a paper.

Tomorrow, I’ll present the three most intriguing ideas I heard at the conference from my one day of attending sessions.

Sociology and totalitarian regimes

The discipline of sociology in Russia/the Soviet Union has faced problems over the decades:

Totalitarian regimes have a conflicted relationship with sociology. On the one hand, they have no elections or free media from which to learn about the public mood, so they need sociologists even more than democratic governments do. On the other hand, their fear of information is directly proportional to their need for it. They fear that sociologists, if allowed to work freely, will obtain knowledge about the vulnerabilities of the regime. An ideal totalitarian regime would find a way to obtain sociological data without the sociologists.

This push-pull relationship with sociology kept playing out throughout the Soviet period. For decades, sociology was effectively a banned discipline. Even Karl Marx, in official Soviet scholarship, was stripped of his sociological credentials, retaining the title only of “founder of scientific communism, teacher and leader of the international proletariat.” But starting in the 1950s, a little bit of sociology was allowed, under the auspices of philosophy — Marxist philosophy, of course…

The Levada Center retained its reputation as the most reliable source on Russian public opinion. Even federal ministries occasionally commissioned surveys from it. Sometimes the results of those differed little or not at all from those produced by the Kremlin-controlled pollsters.

But the Levada sociologists could not be controlled by the Kremlin, and that sealed their fate. In the end, the Kremlin’s fear of information became stronger than the desire to know, just as Mr. Gudkov knew it would.

This piece focus on one issue sociologists face within totalitarian regimes: dictators tend to want to control what information is available while sociologists generally want to make information available. Knowledge is power and those who try to subvert the official information stream are punished.

There is also at least one other issue regarding such information: what purpose should it serve? Do sociologists living in these conditions support or endorse the totalitarian actions? If so, are there justifiable reasons for doing so? Generally, sociology has thrived in places with more democratic governments and the discipline of sociology in the United States has shied away from ideas of fascism and totalitarianism, partly on the conservative end of the spectrum. (I’m sure there is work about this; the 1960s was an interesting point for sociology as prior to this, the discipline had some prominent conservative theorists.)

This could lead to an interesting question: is the practice of sociology generally limited to liberal democracies? In other words, it may only be possible under certain societal conditions and may not have emerged as it did without the changes to the nation-state and the start of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment in Europe.