Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1942-) Sociologist of religion; Professor of Sociology, University of Warwick (England). Founder of the British Sociological Association's Study Group for the Sociology of Religion (1975) and its Chairman from 1978 to 1983; President, International Sociological Association Research Committee 22 (1982-1986); President, Association for the Sociology of Religion (1989); Acting Chairman of INFORM (1994-1995); Vice-President for Publications, International Sociological Association (1994-1998); Editor, Current Sociology , 1980-1987; President, Société Internationale de Sociologie des Religions, 1999-2002.

Beckford's work in the sociology of religion began with a doctoral thesis that was the first major study to provide a sociological understanding of the Jehovah's Witnesses, The Trumpet of Prophecy (Blackwell 1975), which remains to this day a standard work on the subject. He then turned to what is perhaps the research for which he has become best known, providing an analysis of the new religious movements (NRMs) and, in particular, the varieties of reactions that they have elicited from the wider society. His empirical studies of the anti-cult movement in Britain, France, and Germany, complemented by his research into media coverage of the movements, provide the basic data to substantiate his contention that the ways in which the movements are received can tell us as much, if not more, about a society as the study of the movements themselves.

In Cult Controversies: Societal Responses to New Religious Movements (Tavistock 1985), one of the more readable and informative texts on the subject, Beckford has proposed a new framework for the classification of NRMs on the basis of the manner in which they are "inserted" in society, or, as Beckford puts it more formally, "What is distinctive about the way in which members of NRMs are individually and collectively related to other people, groups, institutions, and social processes?" His model highlights the dynamic association between, on the one hand, those relationships that link persons associated with a movement with each other (apostates, patrons, clients, adepts, and devotees) and, on the other hand, the relationships that exist between the collectivity of members and nonmembers.

A recurrent cri de coeur * in Beckford's work has been that the sociology of religion should reverse its isolation from neighboring subdisciplines, as much is to be learned by adopting some of the latter's new theoretical texts. Such an exercise might, Beckford argues in Religion and Advanced Industrial Society (Unwin-Hyman 1989), return the study of religion to the central position it held in the days of the founding fathers. Beckford himself is a fine example of one who does indeed practice what he preaches; not only does he explore ideas to be found in other areas of sociology for himself, but he takes his readers into unfamiliar territories. Apart from his impressive familiarity with both classical and emerging trends in theoretical perspectives, his interests carry him into a number of adjacent areas such as deviancy, social movements, and environmental concerns. His familiarity with the literature of continental Europe as well as that of Japan enables him to make an unusually broad contribution to English-speaking scholarship, which is particularly evidenced in such collected works as New Religious Movements and Rapid Social Change (Sage 1986) and The Changing Face of Religion (with Thomas Luckmann, Sage 1989).

Beckford previously has been a faculty member at the universities of Reading and Durham, England, and Loyola University Chicago. He has published around 70 articles or book chapters.

Eileen Barker

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