religion

The ‘power elite’ as we conceive it, also rests upon the similarity of its personnel, and their personal and official relations with one another, upon their social and psychological affinities. In order to grasp the personal and social basis of the power elite’s unity, we have first to remind ourselves of the facts of origin, career, and style of life of each of the types of circle whose members compose the power elite.

— C. Wright Mills. 1956. The Power Elite. Oxford University Press

President John F. Kennedy addresses the Prayer Breakfast in 1961. Wikimedia Commons.

A big question in political sociology is “what keeps leaders working together?” The drive to stay in public office and common business interests can encourage elites to cooperate, but politics is still messy. Different constituent groups and social movements demand that representatives support their interests, and the U.S. political system was originally designed to use this big, diverse set of factions to keep any single person or party from becoming too powerful.

Sociologists know that shared culture, or what Mills calls a “style of life,” is really important among elites. One of my favorite profiles of a style of life is Jeff Sharlet’s The Family, a look at how one religious fellowship has a big influence on the networks behind political power in the modern world. The book is a gripping case of embedded reporting that shows how this elite culture works. It also has a new documentary series:

When we talk about the religious right in politics, it is easy to jump to images of loud, pro-life protests and controversial speakers. What interests me about the Family is how the group has worked so hard to avoid this contentious approach. Instead, everything is geared toward simply getting newcomers to think of themselves as elites, bringing leaders together, and keeping them connected. A major theme in the first episode of the series is just how simple the theology is (“Jesus plus nothing”) and how quiet the group is, even drawing comparisons to the mafia.

Vipassana Meditation in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Source: Matteo, Flickr CC.

Sociologists see similar trends in other elite networks. In research on how mindfulness and meditation caught on in the corporate world, Jaime Kucinskas calls this “unobtrusive organizing.” Both the Family and the mindfulness movement show how leaders draw on core theological ideas in Christianity and Buddhism, but also modify those ideas to support their relationships in business and government. Rather than challenging those institutions, adapting and modifying these traditions creates new opportunities for elites to meet, mingle, and coordinate their work.

When we study politics and culture, it is easy to assume that core beliefs make people do things by giving them an agenda to follow. These cases are important because they show how that’s not always the point; sometimes core beliefs just shape how people do things in the halls of power.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

If Cosmo and Buzzfeed have taught us anything, it’s that we love personality quizzes. Sure, many of them aren’t valid measures of personality, but it can still be fun to find out what kind of Disney princess you are or what your food truck preference says about the way you handle rejection in life. 

Vintage Quiz from “The Girl Friend and the Boy Friend” Magazine May 1953 – via Envisioning the American Dream

But the logic behind these fun quizzes can has a big impact in social science, because they are all based on looking for patterns in how people answer questions. We can reverse-engineer the process; instead of going in with a set of personality types and designing a survey, researchers can use a method called Latent Class Analysis to look at completed surveys and see which patterns of answers emerge from the data. By comparing those patterns to existing theories, they can come up with new categories that explain how people think, especially people who fall in between the strong or obvious categories.

The Pew Research Center has done this with different styles of religious experiences, and you can take a quiz to see which type best fits you. 

Bart Bonikowski and Paul DiMaggio use this approach to identify different kinds of nationalism in the U.S. There are ardent nationalists and people who are disengaged from nationalism, but the middle is more interesting. Between these two groups, there are also people with relatively moderate national pride who still think only certain people are “truly American,” and there are folks who have higher national pride, but a more inclusive vision of who belongs.

I also used this method in a recent paper with Jack Delehanty and Penny Edgell looking at different kinds of religious expression in the public sphere. In a new paper coming soon, our team also finds patterns in how people think about who shares their vision for American society.

Religion, nationalism, and even racism? These are heavier topics than the typical personality quiz covers, but the cool part about this method is that it is less intrusive than directly asking people what they think about these topics. When we ask simpler questions—but more of them—and then look for patterns in the answers, we can learn a lot more about what they actually think.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

As summer approaches and ads for part-time student work start popping up all over campus, it is a good time to talk about the sociology of sales. The Annex podcast recently ran a segment on multi-level marketing (MLM) organizations, and I just finished the binge-worthy podcast series The Dream, which follows the history of these companies and the lives of people who sell their products.

Photo Credit: Retrogasm, Flickr CC

Sometimes called direct sales or network marketing, these organizations offer part time, independent work selling everything from handbags to health supplements. The tricky part is that many of these groups spend more time encouraging people to recruit friends and family to sell, rather than moving products through traditional retail markets. People draw on their nearby social networks to make sales and earn bonuses, often by hosting parties or meeting in small groups.

You might have seen pitches for one of these groups at your local coffee shop or campus. Some MLMs get busted for using this model to build illegal pyramid schemes, while other direct sales companies claim to follow the law by providing employee protections.

Photo Credit: Neo_II, Flickr CC

MLMs are a rich example for all kinds of sociology. You could do an entire Introduction to Sociology class branching out from this case alone! Here are a few examples that The Dream inspired for me (find episodes here):

  • Economic sociologists can talk about the rise of precarious labor and the gig economy—conditions where more people feel like they need to be entrepreneurs just to survive. MLMs are particularly good at using these social conditions for recruitment.
  • Sociologists of gender will have a lot to say about how these groups recruit women, targeting our gendered assumptions about who needs part-time, flexible work and who is best suited to do the emotional work of sales. Pair readings with Episode 2: “Women’s Work.”
  • I’ve seen a fair number of MLM pitches in coffee shops and accidentally walked into a few in college. Watching these pitches is a masterclass in symbolic interactionism, and students can see how people build rapport with each other through face work and sales parties as rituals. Pair with Episode 3: “Do you party?” 
  • Many of these companies are either religiously-affiliated or lean on religious claims to inspire and motivate recruits. Sociologists of religion and culture can do a lot with the history of the New Thought movement. Pair The Protestant Ethic with Episode 4: “The Mind is a Fertile Field.”
  • Political sociologists can use the history of how these groups get around regulation to talk about corporate influence in the political world and how elites coordinate. Sociologists of Law will also love the conversation about legitimacy, especially how direct sales organizations learned to distinguish themselves from “clearly illegal pyramid schemes.” Pair with Episode 7: “Lazy, Stupid, Greedy or Dead.”

This is a great focus topic for the social sciences, both because it touches on so many trends in the US culture and economy, and because college students and recent graduates are often a target market for many of these groups.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

Over the past few years, Chris Pratt has been more public about his faith in interviews, award speeches, and social media. A few days ago, Ellen Page raised questions about Pratt’s church advancing anti-LGBT views. Pratt has ties to both Zoe Church and Hillsong, evangelical churches that are well-known and influential in contemporary Christianity.

My work doesn’t usually dovetail with celebrity gossip, but this case caught my interest because it raises questions about whether we can or should ask people to justify the political work of their religious groups. Thanks to research in the sociology of religion, we know how political attitudes spread through faith groups, and this can help us make better sense of the conversation.

Photo Credit: Mor, Flickr CC

There is good reason to expect people to have their own beliefs that might differ from their church leadership. Research across the social sciences shows that people generally aren’t consistent in the way they express their religious beliefs in everyday life. Also, churches are not often clear about where they stand on these issues. According to reporting in The Huffington Post,

Zoe’s official stance on LGBTQ issues is unclear, according to Church Clarity, a crowd-sourced database that scores churches based on how clearly they communicate their policies on LGBTQ people and on women in leadership. George Mekhail, one of Church Clarity’s founders, told HuffPost he suspects that the ambiguity some conservative Christian churches have around their LGBTQ policies could be intentional.

That last part of the quote gets at the most important sociological point. In these church contexts, people don’t usually get their politics straight from the pulpit. Research on evangelical congregations shows how most of the political socialization in church life comes from lay leaders and fellow members who model their political views for new members. If church leaders want to advocate for a pro-life, anti-LGBT, or other policy agenda, they often don’t have to do it explicitly. The laity has already taught newcomers that this is how “people like us” vote.

Want to learn more about the new politics of evangelicals? There’s research on that!

We also have to consider Pratt’s status as a celebrity congregant. Regardless of his personal views, religious organizations have long taken an interest in cultural influence and worked to foster connections with important social networks in politics, business, and the entertainment industry to legitimize and advance their social agendas.

It might seem unfair to call out a single person for the agenda of an entire church organization. On the other hand, as a sociologist, I come to this debate less interested in what’s in any single person’s head or heart. I’m more interested in where they are in relation to everyone else and what those relationships do. The conversation from Page reminds us that It’s not necessarily about what a person believes, but about what they legitimate with their platform and presence.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

When I teach social statistics, I often show students how small changes in measurement or analysis can make a big difference in the way we understand the world. Recently, I have been surprised by some anger and cynicism that comes up when we talk about this. Often at least one student will ask, “does it even matter if you can just rig the results to say whatever you want them to say?”

I can’t blame them. Controversy about manufactured disagreement on climate change, hoax studies, or the rise of fake news and “both side-ism” in our politics can make it seem like everyone is cooking the books to get results that make them happy. The social world is complicated, but it is our job to work through that complexity and map it out clearly, not to throw up our hands and say we can’t do anything about it. It’s like this optical illusion:

The shape isn’t just a circle or a square. We can’t even really say that it is both, because the real shape itself is complicated. But we can describe the way it is built to explain why it looks like a circle and a square from different angles. The same thing can happen when we talk about debates in social science.

A fun example of this popped up recently in the sociology of religion. In 2016, David Voas and Mark Chaves published an article in the American Journal of Sociology about how rates of religious commitment in the United States are slowly declining. In 2017, Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock published an article in Sociological Science responding to this conclusion, arguing that most of the religious decline was among moderate religious respondents—people with very strong religious commitments seemed to be holding steady. Just recently, both teams of authors have published additional comments about this debate (here and here), analyzing the same data from the General Social Survey.

So, who is right?

Unlike some recent headlines about this debate, the answer about religious decline isn’t just “maybe, maybe not.” Just like the circle/square illusion, we can show why these teams get different results with the same data.

Parallel Figures from Voas & Chaves (2018) and Schnabel & Bock (2018) (Click to Enlarge)

When we put the charts together, you can see how Voas and Chaves fit straight and smoothly curved lines to trends across waves in the GSS. This creates the downward-sloping pattern that fits their conclusions about slow religious decline over time. Schnabel and Bock don’t think a single straight line can accurately capture these trends, because the U.S. saw a unique peak in religious commitment that happened during the Regan years and may have receded more quickly. Their smoothing technique (LOESS smoothing) captures this peak and a quick decline afterwards, and doing so flattens out the rest of the trends after that period.

The most important lesson from these charts is that they don’t totally get rid of the ambiguity about religious change. Rather than just ending the debate or rehashing it endlessly, this work helps us see how it might be more helpful to ask different questions about the historical background of the case. I like this example because it shows us how disagreement among experts can be an invitation to dig into the details, rather than a sign we should just agree to disagree. Research methods matter, and sometimes they can help us more clearly explain why we see the world so differently.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

Every year I see the Fourth of July spark a social media fight. First, the flag swag comes out for the ritual parties and barbecues:

Then, somebody posts the U.S. flag code, especially this part:

(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.

It is interesting that flag apparel has become a quintessential dudebro look for the Fourth. Activist Abbie Hoffman was arrested for wearing a flag shirt in protest in 1968, and we still argue about whether flag burning in protest should be legal.

Are the dudebros disrespectful? Are the flag purists raining on the parade? Sociology shows us how this debate runs into deep assumptions about how we show respect for sacred things.

In 1966, the late sociologist Robert Bellah presented a now-classic essay, “Civil Religion in America.” The essay is about religion in public life, and how American politicians created a sense of shared national identity around general religious claims. Since then, sociologists and political theorists have argued about how inclusive civil religion really is (Does it include atheists or other minority groups who aren’t Christian? Lots of Americans don’t seem to think so.), but the theory is useful for highlighting how much of American political life takes on a religious tone.

While Bellah focused on religious references in speeches and texts, there is a more general point that stands out for the flag debate:

What we have, then, from the earliest years of the republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity…

The American civil religion…borrowed selectively from the religious tradition in such a way that the average American saw no conflict between the two. In this way, the civil religion was able to build up without any bitter struggle with the church powerful symbols of national solidarity and to mobilize deep levels of personal motivation for the attainment of national goals.

It is pretty easy to see the flag as a sacred symbol—one that represents a long history of solidarity and commitment in the United States. The trick is that civil religion focuses on the content of political beliefs more than the conduct of honoring those beliefs. The rich variety of human religious experience shows us that just because people share a sacred symbol doesn’t mean they agree about how best to celebrate it. Sure, the styles of American Christianity might appreciate quiet reverence and contemplation, but other societies partied to show their piety (Bacchanalia, anyone?).

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons, Scott Sherrill-Mix and US Embassy Canada via Flickr CC.

Once you consider the range in how people express their deeply-held political and cultural beliefs, it gets easier to understand where they are coming from, even if you completely disagree with them. What starts as an argument about disrespect hides a deeper argument about different kinds of celebration (and, of course, whether it is appropriate to celebrate at all)Political tensions are high these days, but cases like this show how we can have more productive arguments by getting to the core of our cultural disagreements.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

On November 1st, 2017, Muslim YouTube phenomenon Dina Tokio premiered her documentary project “#YourAverageMuslim,” a four-part Creators for Change series produced by YouTube. This documentary is a prime example of the meaningful feminist digital activism being undertaken by contemporary Muslim women. Such activism seeks to reframe the discourse around Muslim women by showing that successful, independent and bold Muslim women are not the exception, but the norm.

For centuries, Muslim women have been subject to the Orientalist gaze, which paints Muslim female bodies as exotic, veiled, and oppressed victims in various visual and written depictions. These depictions have largely shaped the experiences of average Muslim women, who must deal with constantly being stereotyped by the public as victims of their culture and religion. These Muslim women have now taken to the online world to fight against these stereotypes. By using online platforms to make documentaries such as #YourAverageMuslim and music videos like “Somewhere in America #Mipsterz” (both of which received millions of views online) these women have been quite successful in extending their perspectives to wider audiences.

“Somewhere In America” – dir. Habib Yazdi from XY CONTENT on Vimeo.

#YourAverageMuslim highlights the lives of three Muslim women in Europe – Dalya Mlouk, Emine, and Sofia Buncy. Dalya Mlouk is the world’s first female hijabi power-lifter, who has broken the world record for deadlifting in her age and weight category. German hip-hop dancer Emine dominates Berlin’s underground hip-hop dance world, and is the first hijabi dance teacher in Europe who also owns her own dance school. Sofia Buncy stands out from the other women, in that she doesn’t wear the hijab, but works primarily in an overlooked area of social work, catering to the needs of Muslim women in prisons. 

Dina Tokio with Dalya Mlouk, Emine, and Sofia Buncy

While all these women are doing exceptional work, whether it be individual or community based, the aim of this documentary is not to showcase how exceptional these women are. Rather, its priority is to normalize the idea that your average Muslim woman may come from diverse backgrounds and is successful, multi-talented, and determined to live her life the way she chooses. Western media representations of minority groups play a large role in shaping how the public conceptualizes its notions of such groups. When these conceptualizations are depicted repeatedly, they become normalized and shape the experiences of minority group members. #YourAverageMuslim seeks to disrupt those representations by normalizing an alternate conceptualization that refrains from reducing the complex nature of the Muslim female experience in the West. This project is unique as it is dedicated specifically to showing amazing women who are not breaking any stereotype, but are instead leading #YourAverageMuslim life.

Inaash Islam is a PhD student in Sociology at Virginia Tech. She specializes in the areas of race, culture and identity, and focuses specifically on the Muslim experience in the West. 

Originally Posted at There’s Research On That! 

Photo by Tom Lee, Flickr CC

If you like Halloween, you know that witches are a popular costume choice and decoration this time of year. But the history of witches involves much more than bubbling cauldrons and flying broomsticks. Social science shows us that witchcraft has a long history of empowering marginalized groups, like women and sexual minorities, who question more traditional religious practices.

While popular images of witches often focus on magic spells, brooms, and pointed hats, witchcraft and other forms of neo-paganism have historically been used by women to push back against male-dominated religions. More traditional, hierarchical interpretations of religions like Christianity and Islam often place women in a subordinate role to men, and research finds that many women are drawn to witchcraft and other alternative spiritualities because they emphasize female empowerment, embodied rituals, and sexual freedom.

People who practice witchcraft and neo-paganism typically see sexuality and gender as key sites for social transformation and personal healing, pushing back against the Christian idea that sex and bodies are sinful. Since neo-paganism values sexual freedom and sexual diversity, LGBTQ folks and people practicing polyamory often feel a sense of belonging that they don’t find in other religious spaces.

This has also been true for young adults. In general, young adults practice religion and spirituality differently than do older generations. For example, millennials are the least likely to participate in traditional religious institutions or identify with one single religious belief system, but many still desire some combination of spirituality and community. The increase in portrayals of witchcraft and other neo-pagan religions in popular media has exposed younger generations to these communities, and research finds that teens are more often drawn to these alternative spiritual practices as a means of self-discovery and community, rather than the promise of magical powers.

Allison Nobles is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota and a member of The Society Pages’ graduate editorial board. Her research primarily focuses on sexuality and gender, and their intersections with race, immigration, and law.

Jacqui Frost is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota and the managing editor at The Society Pages. Her research interests include non-religion and religion, culture, and civic engagement.