Thursday, June 7, 2007

sociology of religious movements

Stephan Fuchs, in Against Essentialism (pg. 61), provides the following summary of Emile Durkheim's analysis of the evolution of religious groups. While the language is somewhat opaque, the essential points seem to shine through.

My interest in this kind of overview is to understand the various influences acting on or in a given individual or group and adapt teaching, advice, coaching, or training to meet the exigencies of that situation precisely and appropriately. A great deal of effort can be expended fruitlessly in resisting a tide of natural evolution, as King Canute of Denmark demonstrated. On the other hand, a clear understanding of the ebb and flow of tides can reveal areas and approaches where the right teaching or advice can open a new level of understanding or new possibilities to the individual.

Isolated groups with high social density and strong moral commitments to tradition tend to reify their sacred cultural tokens in totems and taboos. They do not allow for much internal diversity and dissent. Lacking contact with alternatives, the group's culture acquires logical and moral necessity, mapped onto the very fabric of the world itself. The group's way of life seems to realize the natural order of things.

Such groups have facts and universals, true in all possible worlds. The core cultural possessions are carefully protected and guarded against decay and dissent. Since the important truths are already known, innovators are prosectued as dangerous heretics straying from the righteous path.

As coupling loosens, density declines, and outside contacts increase, more contingency and alternative possibilities flow into the world. The group increases its tolerance for deviance and dissent. Some nonconformity is rewarded as innovation. Some facts become ambiguous, some universals turn out to be historic individuals, and some moral certainties become less sure of themselves. Criticism emerges and no longer indicates moral failure and irresponsibility. The future becomes more uncertain, not just an extension of the good traditions. Instead, the open future promises more innnovations and discoveries; it is a future that needs to be made, and might be made in different ways. More cosmopolitan and decentralized networks sustain more pluralism.

Under certain conditions, loose coupling might lead to decoupling, or fragmentation of communication and interaction. Self-sustaining subcultures emerge, with few or no overlaps. the group's attention space divides into multiple perspectives, who incommensurability increases with decreasing exchange frequency and density across borders and boundaries. Contingency turns into arbitrariness, the historical sesnse into relativism, and each perspective expresses only the idiosyncratic standpoint from which it emerges. Criticism exaggerates into global and foundational skepticism.

The first group condition produces realism about facts and universals. The second favors pragmatic innovation and discovery, while the third one leads to conversational and perspectival relativism.

This overview may help to understand why some groups fear paradigm shifts and others embrace them, why some groups have a hard time distinguishing discoveries and advances from fads and fashions. In particular, when density and isolation are high, one would expect rigid and exclusive cultural classifications and a decrease in doctrinal, moral, and ritual intensity as boundaries become more permeable. While this description was developed from observation of religious groups, the same phenomena and progressions can be observed in a wide variety of settings, from corporate cultures to scientific research communities to academic enclaves.