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Theorizing and Analyzing Religious Change

Panel Chair: Liam Sutherland | Friday, August 28, 1:30-3 p.m. | Venue

The panel explores the analytical study of religion’s shared ground with sociology and anthropology to address representation, interpretation and theorizing change through semantics, analysis of social forms, structuralism, Marxist and post-Marxist theory, conceptual history and critical discourse analysis. In 1992, the Comaroffs noted the objectivity v. critical theory crisis and offered ethnography anchored in critical theory responsive historiography. 19 years later, Isaac Reed noted the false binary between activist scholarship that scorns data and causal explanation and naturalism/critical realism advocating stable objects available for value-immune descriptions. Reed states we can offer explanations regarding how and why things happen and change if we attend to the labor of historically and hermeneutically grounded critical theory informed social science. The Comaroffs, Reed and Zald resonate with the best analytical work in the study of religion over the last few decades: their work can operationalize the work of Lynch and Taves.

Volkhard Krech

Change we need. Dynamics in the History of Religions between Semantics and Social Forms

Social change in general is usually conceptualized as an ongoing process (e.g., as “modernization”). However, there could be no innovation if there was no continuity (e.g., “tradition”). The same holds true for the history of religions. It will be argued that the history of religions can be conceptualized the best by considering the dialectics between process and structure, condensation and diffusion as well as dynamics and stability. The history of religions proceeds between these (and other) poles. The oscillation is based on the interplay between semantics and social forms. Free floating semantics are canalized in special social forms (groups, currents, organizations), and social forms are legitimized by certain semantics.

Paul-François Tremlett

Theorizing Change: Forms, Morphologies, Transformations

This paper explores some ways in which scholars have conceptualised societal change. The paper begins with Lévi-Strauss’ structuralist intervention in anthropology. This is framed as a rejection of linear, ‘evolutionist’ theories of which imagined societies as progressing from simple aggregates of elements to complex organisms. Lévi-Strauss developed the idea of ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ societies informed by ideas drawn from cybernetics, including entropy and feedback systems, while his writings on myth posited agentless transformation with myths taking the form of spirals. The paper moves to consider Marxist and post-Marxist theories of change, notably Laclau’s opposition of contradiction to antagonism which indicates a shift from a linear progression of forms to social forms as the outcome of contingent processes of struggle. The paper concludes with an assessment of the value of these theories for understanding contemporary processes of postmodern/neo-liberal change and their impact on religious traditions.

Ipsita Chatterjea

Change and Assertions of Continuity: Tracing Religious, Political and Cultural Valences of Social Regulation

This paper focuses on techniques for tracking change and internal heterogeneity within religious social aggregations over time. The paper addresses how Lynch’s notion of “the sacred”, and Taves’ designation of “experiences” and “things deemed special” can be operationalized to study larger scale and complex constructions through historical sociology (Zald, John and Jean Comaroff and Reed) conceptual history (Koselleck, Pocock and Foucault.) and critical discourse analysis (Wodak and Wuthnow). These techniques can be used to trace religious, political and cultural change and continuity; identify pivots for comparison and gauge representation and extensibility. The paper will illustrate the implementation of these techniques in a study that tracked metonyms of religious belief regarding human equality, social justice and “justified dominance” to narrate how African Methodist Episcopal women activists and their contemporaries created and responded to institutional shifts within the church and mobilized to fight asymmetrical social regulation within the U.S.


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Open Sessions

Thematic Outline

University Map (pdf, 192 KB)