The Post-Colonial Method versus the Sociological Method in the Study of Religion: Top-down or Bottom-up?

In the current study of “religion,” two different methods have developed that are often in tension with each other.  The first is the Post-Colonial Method (PCM)[1] with scholars like Talal Asad, Edward Said, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Gayatri Spivak, and the second is the Sociological Method (SM) with scholars like Steve Bruce, Phil Zuckerman, and Barry A. Kosmin.  Each of these methods has their own histories, assumptions, and trajectories for the study of religion.  The tensions between the two arise about issues of defining or employing the term “religion,” the problems with religious or non-religious self-identification, and the usefulness or irrelevance of the social scientific study of religion.  This article is going to address some of these tensions while examining specific issues in these two methods.  I will argue that there is a balance to be struck between a top-down (PCM) and a bottom-up (SM) approach to the study of religion.[2]  I will primarily be using Talal Asad and Steve Bruce as my interlocutors for discussing issues surrounding “religion” in these two methods.

Let me begin by briefly explaining what I mean by the PCM being “top-down” and the SM being “bottom-up.”  What I mean by this is that the PCM tends to focus on grand historical and political narratives, rightly challenging concepts and power-relations that flow from the top-down (i.e. colonialism).  Religion, defined in universal and essentialist ways, is just such a concept.  This does not mean, however, that the PCM is not concerned with people on the “ground level.”  The subalterns, the “others,” and the oppressed people of the world are taken very seriously.  I do see this method as distinct from the SM.  The SM, in my opinion, is not as much an enterprise of examining historical and political narratives, as it is a focus on present-day people who identify in certain ways.  The sociology of religion, for instance, deals with statistics and demographics whose locus is people reporting on their own lives.  In this sense, the SM is bottom-up.  One could argue that the SM is simply imposing Euro-centric notions onto large western populations, and as such, is actually “top-down.”  Although I find some of these arguments powerful, I nonetheless see these two methods as primarily leaning towards one trajectory over another.

It is clear from a cursory reading of Asad that his focus, which resembles many post-colonial sentiments, is historical, political, and anthropological.  As the title of his book Genealogy of Religion points out, Asad wishes to trace the genealogy of the term “religion.”  Bruce, on the other hand, primarily uses the social sciences, statistics, and demographics to argue his points.  What are some of the problems with these approaches to religion?  Does the post-colonial method miss the fact that people self-identify as religious or as being part of a religion, or the fact that we need to go to actual people, not cultural concepts and political history, to discover what “religion” amounts to?  Or does the sociological method often ignore the biased history and politically charged terminology that is commonplace in the social sciences?  Does the sociology of religion rely upon antiquated, colonial, Euro-centric, Christian notions of “religion?”

In critiquing Clifford Geertz’ famous definition of religion, Asad sums up one of his main points in Genealogy of Religion: “My argument is that there cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes.”[3]  These “discursive processes” are products of European and Enlightenment thought, are often centered around some form of Christianity, and often juxtapose the rational, doxastic, and cognitive elements of “true religion” with the irrationality, practical, and non-cognitive nature of primitive idolatry.  According to Asad, “The demand that received practices must affirm something about the fundamental nature of reality, that it should therefore always be possible to state meanings for them which are not plain nonsense, is the first condition for determining whether they belong to ‘religion.’”[4]  William E. Connolly, while discussing Asad’s critique of Wilfred Cantrell Smith, says something similar: “many secularists, ministers, theologians, anthropologists, philosophers, and social scientists place such practices [religious devotional practices] within a cognitive framework that either ignores the embedded character of embodied faith, diminishes its importance, or reduces it to modes of cultural manipulation to be transcended by cognitively pure belief.”[5]

The rest of this article is on Patheos here.

Image from Wikimedia, author Szczepan199

[1] There are debates about whether to use the term “post-colonial,” “de-colonial,” or to abandon the these titles altogether.  There are also a wide variety of post-colonial thinkers who often have differing opinions, but I still find a common trajectory and nuance amongst them.

[2] One of the only substantial articles that directly addresses this question is, Greggor McLennan, “Sociology, Eurocentrism, and Postcolonial Theory,” European Journal of Social Theory, 6(1): 69-86.

[3] Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 29.  This is reminiscent of Richard Dawkins’ notion that the “God Hypothesis” is a scientific hypothesis because it affirms something about the nature of reality. See Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, N.Y.: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), pp. 51-99.  Phil Zuckerman also has a focus on belief as central to religion: “There are certainly other significant elements to religious life, such as the importance of congregating, as discussed in the introduction, or the pervading emphasis on altruism.  But for me, belief is of paramount concern.  Religions tend to be based upon claims about the nature of this world and this reality.”

Invitation to the Sociology of Religion (New York, N.Y.: Routledge, italics his), 115.

[4] Ibid, 43

[5] William E. Connolly, Pluralism (London, U.K.: Duke University Press, 2005), 57


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