Thesis Seven: Practices


“Roundtable on the Sociology of Religion: Twenty-Three Theses on the Status of Religion in American Sociology—A Mellon Working-Group Reflection.”  2013.  Christian Smith, Brandon Vaidyanathan, Nancy Tatom Ammerman, Jose Casanova, Hilary Davidson, Elaine Howard Ecklund, John H. Evans, Philip S. Gorski, Mary Ellen Konieczny, Jason A. Springs, Jenny Trinitapoli, and Meredith Whitnah.  Journal of the American Academy of Religion, PP. 1-36.


The article above should be discussed by sociologists, especially sociologists of religion, and so I highlight one of the 23 theses with that discussion in mind.

Thesis seven states:  “disciplinary preoccupations and trends often include conceptual inadequacies and biases that impede the serious study of religion.”

Elaborating, the authors argue,

some scholars, especially postmodern and postcolonial critics in religious studies, have challenged the very idea of ‘religion’ as a universal, basically human, and coherent concept.  We think such critiques are partly insightful and correct (see below), but also misleading on the particular question of defining religion.  It is true that the use of the idea of ‘religion’ as a singular category can be misleading in various ways, including wrongly suggesting that all ‘religions’ in the world are natural kinds that share identifiable sets of properties, tendencies, teachings, and practices.  At the same time, we believe that, by shifting our focus from largely exclusive concerns with discourse and concepts  to a more expansive view that takes seriously practices and actions, we can identify a particular type of human activity and orientation that shares features that can be rightly described under the rubric of ‘religion.’

The authors are correct in writing:  “by shifting our focus from largely exclusive concerns with discourse and concepts to a more expansive view that takes seriously practices and actions,” religion as a category is identifiable.  This is an important shift and one that several sociologists of religion are now “practicing.”  I have written in these blog pages previously about the work of Durkheim and one of the most dedicated interpreters of Durkheim today – Anne Warfield Rawls – as arguing similarly.   Specifically, Rawls argues that Durkheim, Goffman, and Garfinkel emphasize “practices over beliefs” because, as Rawls argues, they understand  practices as primary whereas beliefs are secondary or retrospective accounts of practices.   Each would argue that there is an ongoing relationship between practices and beliefs and that they are reciprocal in a number of ways, but, nevertheless, practices or people doing things together precede beliefs.

The emphasis on “practices and actions” is noteworthy as well because sociological concepts are glosses for what really occurs in practice and often not very good glosses at that.  I believe that is partly what these authors are trying to express in Thesis Seven when they write, “by shifting our focus from largely exclusive concerns with discourse and concepts.”  Concepts can be misleading, practices are “on the ground real.”  Indeed, Rawls claims that Garfinkel hammered this point home in his writings (and is often misunderstood because of it).  For example, Rawls discusses Garfinkel not using the concept “community” because it is abstract and too distant from what is actually occurring on the ground.  So she writes, “Garfinkel referred to members of situated practices, not to communities of practice.  He avoided the word ‘communities,’ which has unfortunate connotations with regard to more traditional sociological views, and developed his own notion of a group as consisting of the procedural rules of interpretation of working acts.  It is unfortunate that those who have been influenced by his work have not seen this point” (Garfinkel, Rawls: 91, fn 1).  Garfinkel believed that conceptual reduction made invisible the real achieved coherence of events/practices/actions, and, moreover, concepts too often rendered social order invisible.

Texts are good examples of this making invisible.  Garfinkel said that texts are markers for concepts but what is most important sociologically is practices, things done, said, felt.  Rawls, once again, writes: “It is Garfinkel’s position that the knowledge of practices he is trying to introduce is not a conceptual or cognitive knowledge but, rather, an embodied knowledge that comes only from engaging in practices in concerted co-presence with others.  The details of these practices cannot be seen from within the theoretical attitude. . . .  Ironically, much of what is considered Garfinkel’s difficult writing style results from his dedication to overcoming this limitation of texts, trying to make readers DO the practices discussed” (Garfinkel/Rawls: 5).

I like thesis seven and its emphasis on “practices” because by adhering to it sociologists are less likely to lose the phenomenon they are studying.  To reduce the details of social life to concepts or models is to gloss over real social activity being achieved in real time by real people through real practices in real situations.  For example, in studying the liturgy and the principle of full, active, conscious participation, sociologists need to actually attend Mass and participate in the liturgy and watch people participate.  What does “active participation” mean on the ground?  What does it really look like at a real Mass with real people praying?  Do people pick up the hymnal to sing?  How many do this?  How many actually sing?  How many respond verbally when it is their turn?  How many don’t?  Sociologists need to focus on the “details” of peoples’ Mass practices.  And by focusing on “practices,” as these authors suggest, sociologists will more likely articulate what is really going on when people do Mass/religion together.  Ideas are secondary, concepts gloss, language deceives, texts are abstract.  As much as all of these are needed, sociologists use them best when they have actually observed and participated in what people are doing in the details of their practices.  And it is in the “practices” that most regular lay people recognize this particular thing/practice as religion and that other particular practice as not religion.   Indeed, ordinary religious lay folk have no problem defining “religion” – it is what they DO (practice).

Rawls Warfield, Anne.  2006.  “Respecifying the Study of Social Order—Garfinkel’s Transition from Theoretical Conceptualization to Practices in Details,” pp. 1-98.   In Garfinkel, Harold.  2006.  Seeing Sociologically: The Routine Grounds of Social Action.  Edited and Introduced by Anne Warfield Rawls.  London: Paradigm Publishers.


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