Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Network-configured collectivities that seek to promote or resist political and/or cultural change on the basis of shared group identity. As Stanford Lyman (1995:397) has observed, "In virtually all their various manifestations in the United States, social movements have proclaimed a salvational message, each has sought to cure the soul of either the nation, a sodality within society or the individual."

To the nineteenth-century European pioneers of sociological thought, religion and social movements were closely intertwined and central to the discussion of social change. Thus the crowd psychologist Scipio Sighele (1898) viewed the sect as the "nucleus" of a new social order, while Max Weber's analysis (1978) of the relationship between charisma and routinization stressed the importance of the "prophet" in shaking up and reshaping the legitimate order.

Upon reaching the United States, however, the scholarly treatment of social and religious movements took a different turn. Preoccupied with reforming and reconstructing an urban society fractured, they believed, by rapid industrialization and massive immigration, Robert Park and other second-generation pioneers of American sociology identified social movements as forms of collective behavior that were marginal to the thrust of social progress. This was especially so for religious movements, which appeared exotic, expressive, and retreatist. Furthermore, such movements were dismissed as constituting the "religion of the lower orders," a designation that was reified by Liston Pope's classic contrast (1942) between southern churches, whose members were drawn from respectable elites, and sects, whose followers came disproportionately from the ranks of the blue-collar mill hands. In a world that was seen as rapidly secularizing, religious movements appeared as colorful but largely irrelevant throwbacks to the revivalist era of the past. This view predominated for nearly half a century, being evident, for example, in the early 1960s in Neil Smelser's seminal treatise, Theory of Collective Behavior (Free Press 1962).

Smelser's "value-added" theory of collective behavior isolates six determining factors or conditions that must be present for collective behavior to occur: structural conduciveness, structural strain, generalized beliefs, precipitating factors, mobilization for action, and the operation of social control. The most controversial of these is the third—the formation of generalized beliefs. Critics pointed to Smelser's notion that such beliefs "short-circuit" reality as being misleading, because this suggests, for example, that social movement activists prefer to rely on "magical" rather than straightforward, rational thinking. Religious movements seemed to be especially vulnerable to the emergence of generalized beliefs because they dealt in an otherworldly currency, which was assumed to be largely irrational.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, researchers detected the upsurge of a "new religious consciousness" that arose out of the social and political ferment bubbling in the youth counterculture. Sociologists of religion attempted to plumb the impact and meaning of these "new religious movements" (NRMs) with varying results. Did these religious experimenters represent, Bellah (1976a) pondered, a "bellwether" of things to come or a "backwater" whose effects were only temporary? Among the groups that received considerable scholarly attention were the Hare Krishna, Scientology, the Divine Light Mission, the Unification Church ("Moonies"), the Rajneesh commune, and Nichiren Shoshu.

Sociological commentators approached NRMs from several different directions. Some employed a "cultural historical" style through which the analyst attempted to interpret the "deepest meaning" of the new religious consciousness in the context of modern American history (Bellah 1976b). This resulted in a number of "crisis" or "modernization" theories that pinpointed an "acute and distinctively modern dislocation which is said to be producing some mode of alienation, anomie or deprivation" (Robbins 1988). Among others, the source of this dislocation was identified as being one or more of the following: the pervasive moral ambiguity of American culture, domination by inhuman bureaucratic megastructures, generational angst, the deinstitutionalization of the private realm, and the relentless forward march of secularization.

Other researchers employed a more quantitative-empirical style, seeking answers to the rise of NRMs in microinteractional models of religious attraction, choice, recruitment, and conversion. Sociological profiles were constructed of the "world-saver" (Lofland and Stark 1965) and the "convert" (Snow and Machalek 1983). Friendship and kinship networks were discovered to be important avenues through which NRM recruitment takes place, although these "networks of faith" (Stark and Bainbridge 1980) appeared less important in the case of social isolates who were said to be more "structurally available" for recruitment precisely because they were free of countervailing attachments. Conversion was conceptualized as an episode in "biographical reconstruction" (Snow and Machalek 1983) that followed an identifiable career (Richardson and Stewart 1977). Devotees of NRMs were found to share common social attributes: They were typically young, single, middle class, well educated, from stable family environments, and relatively free from competing occupational ties (Snow and Machalek 1983).

Finally, a handful of religious researchers borrowed from the "resource mobilization" paradigm in the social movements field, analyzing the rise of NRMs in terms of leadership, finances, and other organizational factors.

After nearly a quarter of a century of intensive study, NRM research began to slow by the early 1990s. While some researchers switched their energies to other varieties of contemporary spiritual movements (Wiccans, New Agers, ecofeminists), there was simultaneously an effort to reach out beyond the confines of religion and directly engage a wider body of social and cultural theory. Several sociological commentators (John Hannigan 1991, James Beckford 1990, 1991) looked to the largely European-based "new social movement" (NSM) theory, which attempted to relate environmentalism, feminism, antinuclearism, peace activism, and other "global" movements to large-scale structural and cultural changes. They not only identified religious analogues of these movements but claimed to detect strong spiritual currents running through the ideologies of ecology, feminism, and other NSMs. This new spirituality characteristically favors "synoptic, holistic and global perspectives on issues transcending the privatizing self and the individual state" (Beckford 1990:9).

More recently, some sociologists of religion, notably Rhys Williams, have attempted to plug religion into the accelerating dialogue between cultural sociology and social movement theory. Williams (1995) argues for the usefulness of approaching social movement ideology as a set of cultural resources that are both contextual and public. Taking the rhetoric about the "public good" as one example of a cultural resource important to social movements, he presents three ideal types: the "covenant" model derived from the traditional U.S. religious conception of the "moral community"; the "contractual" model, which uses the language of "rights"; and the "stewardship" model that flourishes in many U.S. churches and denominations, which employs a language of communal duties. In similar fashion, Williams and Alexander (1994) examine the "civil religious" themes in American political rhetoric through an analysis of the religious rhetoric in late-nineteenth-century American populism.

Building on earlier attempts to develop a rational, market-based model of religion and religious movements (Iannaccone 1990, Stark and Bainbridge 1985), R. Stephen Warner has proposed a new paradigm that is organizational, rather than social psychological or cultural, and visualizes the rise of new religious organizations taking place within a wider, open marketplace of religious choice. In this rational choice model, religious adherents are conceptualized as "investors" who may hedge their strategies by assembling "religious portfolios," that is, dabbling in a variety of different religions from mainstream churches to more "risky" sectarian and cultic movements (Iannaccone 1995).

Finally, the social psychological concept of "collective identity" has recently advanced into the foreground of research on social and religious movements. Collective identity is constructed out of the continual interplay of interaction, negotiation, and conflict that characterizes small-group activity within the boundaries of the movement. Collective identity building of this type has been conceptualized as an attributional or claimsmaking process. Such attributions or claims cluster around three "identity fields" (Hunt et al. 1994): protagonists (advocates of movement causes such as leaders, prophets, and martyrs), antagonists (opponents including social control agents, countermovements, star adversaries), and audiences (allied social movement organizations, media, powerful elites, marginal supporters, sympathizers, bystander publics).

Focusing on collective identity provides a necessary counterweight to the economistic and strategic emphasis of models of religion and religious movements such as those proposed by Iannaccone, Stark and Bainbridge, and Warner. At the same time, collective identity is a moving target that is difficult to pin down empirically. Emergent and in a constant state of flux, collective identity is primarily shaped in the course of interaction within the collectivity itself (Johnston et al. 1994).

Social scientific commentators on religion have yet to conceptualize religious movements explicitly in these terms, but there would seem to be a rich vein of opportunity here from case analyses of dramatic events such as the confrontation between federal agents and the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, to longer term relations between religious movements and the wider society. This approach would be further enriched and broadened if it were to be fused with the cultural resource model proposed by Williams and others.

See also New Religious Movements, Resource Mobilization

John Hannigan


J. A. Beckford, "The Sociology of Religion and Social Problems," Sociological Analysis 51(1990):1-14

J. A. Beckford, Religion and Advanced Industrial Society (London: Unwin Hyman, 1991)

R. N. Bellah, (a) "The New Religions in Social Context," and (b) "New Religious Consciousness and the Crisis in Modernity," in The New Religious Consciousness , ed. C. Y. Glock and R. N. Bellah (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976): 267-293, 333-352

J. A. Hannigan, "Social Movement Theory and the Sociology of Religion," Sociological Analysis 52(1991):311-331

S. A. Hunt et al., "Identity Fields," in New Social Movements , ed. E. Larana et al. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994): 185-208

L. R. Iannaccone, "Religious Practice," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 29(1990):297-314

L. R. Iannaccone, "Voodoo Economics?" Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 34(1995):76-89

H. Johnston et al., "Identities, Grievances and New Social Movements," in New Social Movements , ed. E. Larana et al. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994):3-35

J. Lofland and R. Stark, "Becoming a World-Saver," American Sociological Review 30(1965):862-874

S. M. Lyman (ed.), Social Movements (Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 1995)

L. Pope, Millhands and Preachers (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1942)

J. T. Richardson and M. Stewart, "Conversion Process Models and the Jesus Movement," American Behavioral Scientist 20(1977):819-838

T. Robbins, Cults, Converts and Charisma (London: Sage, 1988)

S. Sighele, Psychologie des sects (Paris: Giard et Briere, 1898)

D. A. Snow, "The Sociology of Conversion," Annual Review of Sociology 10 (1984):167-190

D. A. Snow and R. Machalek, "The Convert as a Social Type," Sociological Theory 1(1983):259-289

R. Stark and W. S. Bainbridge, "Networks of Faith," American Journal of Sociology 85(1980):1376-1395

R. Stark and W. S. Bainbridge, The Future of Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)

R. S. Warner, "Work in Progress Toward a New Paradigm for the Sociological Study of Religion in the United States," American Journal of Sociology 98(1993):1044-1093

M. Weber, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978)

R. H. Williams, "Constructing the Public Good," Social Problems 42(1995):124-144

R. H. Williams and S. M. Alexander, "Religious Rhetoric in American Populism," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33(1994):1-15.

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