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.


franca said...

Interesting post. A minor quibble: King Canute's demonstration was not fatal. When a flattering courtier blathered that the King was so powerful he might even command the sea, Canute was angry and ordered everyone to come down to the seashore to watch while he commanded the waves to recede. They didn't, upon which Canute pointed out that even a king's power is limited. He is said to have refused to wear a crown after that, but he did continue to rule. He is remembered as a really effective and wise king.

ellen said...

Well Ken you are certainly into questioning the very nature of how people are able to assimilate ideas.
As an elementary teacher , your view on paradigm shifts gets played out in the world of education every day.Some of the teachers I have encountered are very entrenched in their facts/ truths/ ridigity . The power players from the top add to that ridiginess and fear by not allowing for too much dissent. At least in my perspective.
As fas as teaching is concerned , the the ability to " meet the exigencies of that situation precisely and appropriately" , well questioning and viewing influences are just part of the teaching process,
no ?
I have found that their are way too many variables
to learning for me to be that precise. LOL
Maybe you know more than i do.

Then again your compassion to meet the needs of your students shows through.
Have you ever read Geographhy of Thought ?

Bruce said...

Hi Ken.... in my studies of the sociology of religion, I have always been interested in how religious groups behave relative to core beliefs. This brings to mind the ideas of Martin Marty of the University of Chicago, who relates that some religious groups function as a "canopy" while others provide a "cocoon"... that is, the one is inclusive [allowing for diversity] and the other reclusive [or attempting to shut out opposing or competing realities so as to protect or maintain their view]...

What draws me to the buddhist sangha is the canopy that it creates for those who have the sense that buddha nature is available to all and not just the elect, or select few....

The point of your post may have been that, in understanding the propensities of even the cocoon style of religious expression one might assist this mind set in moving beyond it's narrow confines, even as the restrictions of karma / conditions are played out. This flexible method and process is at the core of how religious movements maintain their ability to adapt to changing circumstances and resist ossifying into remnants of the past... and bring new life and meaning for those in the "modern" world....

Ken said...

Thanks for these observations. As always, Franca is quite right about King Canute. In response to Bruce, the question of how or whether an organization can remain true to its founding principles has been a question I have considered for many years. One of the more interesting responses I've received to this question is "It all comes down to who likes whom."