Religion: The Social Context

Resources for Students and Teachers

Key Terms

In the Sociology of Religion

anomie -- a crisis in the moral order of a social group resulting in the inability of the group to provide order and normative regulation for individual members.

authority -- power that is generally accepted by subjects as legitimate, not based on coercion.

caste -- a group status position in society stratified by ascription

charisma -- extraordinary personal qualities that are the basis of an audience granting the holder legitimate authority

churchly collective stance -- characteristic of a type of religious group that considers itself uniquely legitimate and that maintains a relatively positive relationship with society

churchly individual orientation -- typified by an acceptance of ordinary levels of personal religiosity and of a diffused religious role

civil religion -- any set of beliefs and rituals related to the past, present, and/or future of a people ("nation") giving that people a transcendent sense of their collective destiny

cognitive minority --a group of people whose worldview differs significantly from that of the dominant society

collective representation -- group-held meanings expressing something important about the group itself

commitment -- the process by which an individual increasingly identifies with the group, its meaning systems, and its goals

conversion -- a transformation of one's self-identity concurrent with a transformation of one's basic meaning system

cultic collective stance -- characteristic of a type of religious group that accepts the legitimacy claims of other groups but that maintains a relatively negative tension with the larger society.

cultic/mystical individual orientation typified by a striving for personal spiritual virtuosity, but acceptance of a religious role segmented from other aspects of life

denominational collective stance characteristic of type of religious group that accepts the legitimacy claims of other religious groups and in which the group maintains a positive relationship with the larger society

denominational individual orientation typified by an acceptance of ordinary levels of personal religiosity and of a religious role segmented from other aspects of life

deviance the recognized violation of culturally defined norms

dualism a worldview based on a conceptualization of reality as consisting of two irreducible modes: Good versus Evil

functional definitions of religion those approaches to studying religion that delineate the social functions religion fulfills: what religion does for the individual and social group

globalization a process by which the world is increasingly compressed into a single social (and/or cultural) system, together with increased social consciousness of the world as a whole

heresy a religious idea that has been socially defined by an official reli-gious group as seriously deviant and proscribed

heterodoxy a teaching that is "other" than the official teaching of a religious group; not orthodox

ideology system of ideas that explains and legitimates the actions and interests of a specific sector (e.g., class) of society

individualization narrative that interprets social changes in the place of religion in society as a shift from conformity with group-defined "packages" of religious beliefs and practices to individual autonomy and flexibility in assembling person "packages" of religious beliefs and practices.

individuation the process by which cultural and social structural arrangements come to consider each individual as a separate entity with separate concerns, especially in relation to group entities such as the family, tribe, religious group, or political and judicial institutions

inner-worldly asceticism a pattern of religiosity characterized by norms of forgoing worldly pleasure but at the same time engaging in religious action in the world

institutional differentiation process by which the various institutional spheres in society become separated from each other, with each institution performing specialized functions

legitimacy social recognition of an authority’s claims to be taken seriously; it implies negative social sanctions for failure to comply with authoritative commands

legitimating myth stories that individuals and groups use to justify their values, actions, and identity

legitimation a socially established explanation that is given to justify a course of action

messianism a millenarian worldview that expects the new social order to be ushered in by a divinely appointed leader ("messiah")

millenarianism a worldview based on the expectation of an imminent collapse of the entire social order and its replacement with a perfect new order

mortification the process of stripping the individual of vestiges of the "old self," while the person is becoming resocialized into a new identity consistent with that group’s beliefs and values

nonofficial religion set of religious and quasi-religious beliefs and practices that is not accepted, recognized, or controlled by official religious groups

occultism a worldview based on a set of claims that contradict established (i.e., official) scientific or religious knowledge and that typically emphasize "hidden" teachings

official religion set of beliefs and practices prescribed, regulated, and socialized by organized, specifically religious groups

orthodoxy teaching that conforms to the official teaching of a religious group; not heterodox or heretical

orthopraxis practice (such as a ritual) that conforms to the official norms for practice of a religious group

paranormal occurrences events outside the usual range of experiences

particularism a worldview that holds that one’s own group’s beliefs and practices are the only legitimate ones

plausibility structure social processes within a network of persons sharing a meaning system that enable those persons to accept that meaning system as taken for granted and believable

pluralism a state in which cultural subgroups (e.g., religious or ethnic groups) are given formally equal social standing; no single group holds a monopoly in the definition of beliefs, values, and practices

polity pattern of arrangements for the exercise of legitimate authority in an organization

power the ability to achieve desired ends despite resistance from others

priest a religious role characterized by authority of "office," a functionary in an established official religion who celebrates its rituals, practices, and beliefs (in contrast to the religious role of the prophet)

privatization process by which certain institutional spheres (including religion) become removed from effective roles in the public sphere

profane that which is ordinary, part of everyday life [note: another usage, in common parlance, is as the opposite—even pejorative or negative-reverse—of "sacred"; i.e., that which defiles or pollutes what is defined as "sacred"]

prophet a religious role characterized by charismatic authority and religiously based criticism of a society’s established authorities; there are two kinds:

emissary prophet one who confronts the established powers as one who is sent by God to proclaim a message

exemplary prophet one who challenges the status quo by living a kind of life that exemplifies a dramatically antiestablishment set of meanings and values

proselytize actively try to persuade nonbelievers to become believers

rationalization the process of change from tradition to rationality as the basis for thought (e.g., science), authority (e.g., rational law), and social organization (e.g., specialization and bureaucracy)

relative deprivation a perceived disadvantage based on comparisons with other people’s social resources (material or nonmaterial)

religious markets narrative that interprets social changes in the place of religion in society as the results of competition among religious groups in a marketplace of religious "goods and services"; accordingly, conditions affecting supply and demand in a given society’s market make religion vigorous and prominent in some societies and eras but not in others

religious reorganization narrative that interprets social changes in the place of religion in society as instances of shifts in the locus of religious commitment and belonging (e.g., from denomination to congregation)

rites of passage rituals that accompany a change of social status such as age-grade, office, marriage status, etc.

ritual symbolic actions that represent religious meanings

routinization of charisma the transformation of charismatic authority into some other basis of authority, such as tradition or the authority of office

sacred that which is defined as extraordinary, awesome, and powerful—whether revered or feared, and set apart (from the profane) as holy

sectarian collective stance characteristic of type of religious group that considers itself to be uniquely legitimate and in which the group maintains a relatively negative tension with the larger society

sectarian individual orientation typified by a striving for personal spiritual virtuosity (together with rejection of ordinary levels of religiosity) and emphasis on a diffused religious role

sectarianism a worldview that emphasizes the unique legitimacy of believers’ creed and practices and that heightens negative tension with the larger society by engaging in boundary-maintaining practices

secularization narrative that interprets social changes in the place of religion in society as decline in religion’s power, influence, prestige, and/or popularity in the public sphere.

self-identity each person’s biographical arrangement of meanings and interpretations that form a somewhat coherent sense of "who am I?"

social capital non-material investments (such as in networks of social support, bonds of trust) which may have future "payoffs" (e.g. credit, reciprocal obligations, hiring and promotion)

social change the transformation over time of culture and social institutions

social control all the ways by which members of a culture encourage and enforce conformity to cultural norms

societalization social change in which individuals come to experience their lives as being linked and organized societally rather than locally (as in earlier eras)

stratification the ranking of categories of people in a society into a hierarchy of prestige and privilege

substantive definitions of religion those approaches to studying religion that delineate what religion is—what qualities and content are essentially religious

syncretism beliefs and practices that result from the amalgamation of two or more diverse cultural elements or traditions

theodicy religious explanation that provides meaning for meaning-threatening experiences such as death, disaster, and poverty

virtuosi, religious those who strive for religious perfection (however defined) and are not satisfied by the normal levels of religiosity of the masses

worldview a comprehensive meaning system, locating all experiences of the individual or social group in a single general explanatory arrangement

 

Glossary

This page contains a list of terms that sociologists of religion often use.

Religion: The Social Context discusses them are greater length, and gives examples.

Religion: The Social Context