Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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By developing the concept of communal involvement at length in a landmark study of religious communities in Detroit, Michigan, Gerhard Lenski (1961) set out to address a central issue in the sociology of the United States. The classical theory of urbanism had suggested that religion becomes a highly specialized aspect of social life in the modern metropolis. Churches themselves became highly specialized formal associations that cease to be nuclei around which a variety of social relationships are organized, as was typical of agrarian communities. Nevertheless, the impersonality of urban life stimulates in individuals the need for communal relationships, broader than the family yet narrower than the entire society.

Earlier in American history, ethnic groups served this function, and individuals achieved a sense of community by identifying with German, Polish, Italian, or other ethnic heritages of their immigrant forebears. By the 1950s, the ethnic communities were disintegrating. A problem that Lenski set for himself was to determine whether involvement in religious communities was taking the place of the older identification with ethnic groups. Did the specialization and compartmentalization inherent in an urban way of life compel people to transform their religious groups from narrow, specialized associations into groups that are more communal in character?


Strength of Bonds

Socioreligious Group






White Catholic



White Protestant



Black Protestant



Figure C.5
Structures and Dynamics of Associational and Communal Involvement

Lenski's research found considerable evidence that this was indeed the case, despite the many differences among religious communities in Detroit. To investigate this matter, he made a conceptual distinction between associational involvement in religion and communal involvement in religion. Associational involvement meant participation in church activities, and frequency of church attendance was Lenski's prime indicator of this. Communal involvement, on the other hand, meant the degree to which the primary relationships of the individual (i.e., marriage, kinship, and friendship) are confined to persons in the same socioreligious group. The distinction was important empirically as well as theoretically, Lenski discovered, because the correlation between associational involvement and communal involvement was quite low.

In Detroit, socioreligious groups exhibited distinct patterns of associational and communal involvement. The strong communal involvement of Jews was attributable to the norm of religious endogamy that was very prominent in this group. The strong communal bond among black Protestants appeared less internally generated and more a result of prejudice and segregation of blacks by the white population as a whole.

Lenski went on to demonstrate that endogamy (rather than same-group friendships) was the backbone of communal involvement and that socioreligious group endogamy became more frequent with each generation after immigration. Not only endogamy but the conversion of a marital partner to the other's faith became increasingly common as well. Lenski was also able to establish that communal involvement correlated with a number of attitudes. For instance, he found high communal involvement to be associated with a provincial outlook, a lessened interest in world affairs, negative assessments of other socioreligious groups, and diminished concern with the problems faced by their members. Communal involvement was also related to attitudes on numerous moral issues and correlated with a high valuation of kinship ties and obedience rather than personal autonomy. These many findings led Lenski to conclude that socioreligious groups had indeed replaced ethnic groups as the anchorage in the contemporary urban society of the United States.

Communal involvement is not a term that has been used widely in the literature in recent years. But the 1990s has seen a renaissance of the communitarian perspective in sociology (Etzioni 1994), and this may well reawaken interest in Lenski's landmark study.

See also Gerhard Lenski

Edward B. Reeves


A. Etzioni, The Spirit of Community (New York: Touchstone, 1994)

G. Lenski, The Religious Factor (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961).

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