Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The concept of commitment can be generalized to apply to any type of disposition, behavior, or attribute. Commitment is a process that begins when an alternative is voluntarily decided upon by oneself or is selected and imposed by others. This process of attachment to the alternative is maintained with some degree of commitment strength through pertinent situations until that decision or selection is terminated or replaced by another alternative (Wimberley 1972, 1978).

How do people become committed? The sociology and social psychology of religion have played an important role in developing what we know about the concept of commitment. Today, the concept is used in many studies of religion and continues to spread to research on other topics.

A computer search for research on commitment will readily produce more than 100 recent applications of the term to one topic or another. Theoretically, many studies of commitment use the symbolic interactionist perspective (e.g., Heimer and Matsueda 1994), while many others use an exchange perspective (e.g., Mottaz 1988, Kollock 1994). Much of the research, however, focuses on applying the concept to such practical matters as commitment to organizations (e.g., Mottaz 1988, Morrow 1992), to family and work (e.g., Gerson 1993), or to interpersonal friendships (e.g., Cox et al. 1997).

Here we examine commitment mainly from the exchange and symbolic interactionist perspectives and with special attention to religious commitment. In the 1960s, the concept of commitment was introduced into the sociology of religion primarily by Gerhard Lenski (The Religious Factor , Doubleday 1961), who delineated several dimensions of religious orientation, and by Rodney Stark and Charles Glock, who likewise conceptualized several dimensions of religiosity (Glock and Stark 1965, Stark and Glock 1968). This multidimensional approach to studying religious commitment was rather different from the way religiosity had been studied earlier. Most previous research measured religiosity by asking only about one's curch membership or attendance.

Of course, there is more to religious commitment than can be asked in a single question. People are committed to religion along such dimensions as belief, behavior, feelings of religious experience, and religious knowledge. There is also a dimension of interacting with others who are religious. Interacting with other people makes a difference in the ways we perceive things, and human interactions with one another are the essence of sociology.

Commitment as a General Concept

Religious commitments provide a springboard for looking at commitments in general. Consequently, the term can be applied to any kind of thinking or activity. The same concept of commitment that describes how people are religious has been used to describe how people are deviant. Some may ask, "Is there any difference?" And, to some people, there may not be, for deviance depends upon one's perspective. If strange or unusual behaviors are defined as deviant, many religious ways that are considered unusual could be defined as deviant.

Commitment also has been applied to such topics as dating, marriage, and family; to occupations, careers, and organizations; and to educational pursuits. For instance, one may begin a college program without having chosen a major and not having definite career plans. Or, one may make definite plans but change them before even taking a class in that subject.

Depending upon the commitments one makes initially, there will be repercussions for the commitments made later. These later commitments may develop rather slowly. Although we make commitments without fully realizing the implications they are going to have in the future, we are still making important commitments whether or not we fully intend them.

Small children make many commitments and terminate them very quickly. They can shift from one thing to the next—no great problem. But when children become adults and develop career specialties, their earlier commitments become more binding on their current choices. Given earlier commitments to certain lines of action that identify one's self and roles, there are fewer options from which to choose freely. This not only applies to educational or occupational commitments but to commitments to tastes, habits, ideas, friendships, and other aspects of one's life course.

Interpersonal Commitments : A special type of commitment is the kind we make to other persons—commitments to relationships that we share and trade with others. Social exchange theory, as seen in an early book by Peter Blau, Power and Exchange in Social Life (Wiley 1964), uses the concept of commitment in regard to interpersonal commitments. In fact, in a section called "Excursus on Love," he tells how to make commitments and fall in love according to exchange theory.

Blau suggests that as one begins to commit oneself to another person—an acquaintance, a friend, or potential spouse—the more one invests in the other. As more time and activities are invested in a particular person, the more the possibilities are closed to relationships with alternative persons. In other words, the more time that is spent with one person as a friend, the less time there is to invest in friendships with anyone else. The same is the case for the friend. Furthermore, the more one invests in another, the more one becomes obligated to that person due to the closing of other interpersonal alternatives. Therefore, we make investments in others; we become committed to others. According to social scientific theory, the rewards received from personal relationships with others are extremely important to us.

Commitment and Commitment Strength

Commitments, then, can result from decisions. All commitments do not have to be long or enduring or deal with major events in life. One can be committed, say, to wearing a certain pair of shoes. A decision is made to buy them; a commitment is made to them. One can be committed to eating certain types and amounts of food at breakfast tomorrow. Although some commitments become very important and fairly permanent, they often begin as very transitory, trivial decisions.

Commitment is a process. In this process, one decides among the alternatives of which he or she is aware, or has alternatives selected by others. After the decision or selection is made, the commitment is pursued with some degree of commitment strength, through pertinent situations, and until that commitment is dropped.

Commitment strength is not the same thing as the commitment itself. Consider a commitment to a certain religious belief. The belief to which one is committed may be conservative, moderate, or liberal. But regardless of the commitment position, the strength of the commitment may vary from weak to strong. The belief to which the commitment is made may be a strong commitment at first, then weaken, and then grow strong again. In other words, the strength of a commitment may vary while the underlying commitment position does not change. Commitment strength therefore is more or less painted over the basic, underlying commitment. However, commitment and commitment strength are related. The strength of a commitment to a political party, for example, can be seen to be important for whether one stays with the same political party in the future. High or low commitment strength is an important predictor of whether one keeps or drops a commitment over time.

Situations and Alternatives

To understand better the concept of commitment, it is helpful to understand commitment alternatives. Alternatives come to us in situations, and situations provide the contexts in which to evaluate alternatives. Some alternatives can be defined or perceived in everyday situations; others are not so clear. This and the ensuing steps of the process of commitment are shown in Figure C.3.

When we consider viable alternatives in a situation, we consider only the ones we can recognize. For example, when looking for a job, it is possible to consider only those of which we are aware. We cannot knowingly commit ourselves to any of those unknown alternatives unless we find out about them. It is as simple as that. If there are good jobs out there—commitment alternatives—they can be considered only when their existence is discovered.

Sociologist William Cole once said that education is the process of increasing one's awareness of alternatives. By expanding the known alternatives, more desirable commitment decisions may be made. Theoretically, an educated person should have a larger repertoire or arsenal of commitment alternatives as resources from which to choose.

Alternatives exist in situations. Situations constantly surround us. We are in a situation now; five minutes from now we shall be in a situation. Situations, like dreams, blend one into another. We are always in situations that contain alternatives. Some of these alternatives are recognized and some are not. When one chooses an alternative, a commitment begins.

Decisions and Selections : When we choose for ourselves, we prefer to choose from desirable, rewarding alternatives. Sometimes all alternatives appear rewarding, and the objective is to take the most rewarding. But in other situations, nothing we can choose is a good choice or will make us feel better. Still, we have to sort things out and pick something that is thought to hurt the least or to be the least costly.

On the other hand, there are situations where the alternatives are severely restricted by the social structure. Others make selections for us. Parents restrict and guide children; teachers instruct students; a community exerts influence over its members. The social structure limits the choice of what is proper and acceptable. Due to the process of socialization, those who were once coerced into certain behaviors, such as brushing one's teeth or studying, may now find these acts to be daily habits—ongoing commitments. These are socially acceptable behaviors. And as noted earlier, social approval is a very important reward and force in life.

Commitment as a Process

The selection of alternatives in situations often takes place as a gradual process rather than with an instantaneous decision. An example is religious conversion (compare Kox et al. 1991, Wimberley 1974a, Wimberley et al. 1975). Religious conversions often have been thought to occur all of a sudden: Zap, and there is instant change. At least, that is the way many people report religious conversions.

But if one were to observe closely persons undergoing religious conversions, it would be found that many conversions are not so instantaneous. More often, conversions are lengthy processes. Conversion is a process of interacting with other people, acquiring alternative commitment choices that are learned through interactions with others, and adjusting choices to avoid disturbing others whose approval is most important to us.

The acute versus gradual processes of commitment-making are illustrated in Figure C.4. Consider the following situation: Suppose a Baptist is converting to Catholicism. The Baptist may have married a Catholic and moved into a new community where most acquaintances are Catholics. The process may unfold across a series of encounters in social situations something like the following. The Baptist defines his commitment along the following lines, "I am a Baptist . . . I am a Baptist . . . I am a Baptist . . . I am a Baptist . . . well, you know there's something to Catholicism although I am a Baptist . . . I am a Baptist . . . maybe Catholicism is a satisfactory alternative . . . I am a Baptist . . . I am a Baptist . . . I am a Baptist . . . maybe I'm a Catholic . . . maybe I'm a Catholic . . . no, I'm a Baptist . . . no, I'm a Baptist . . . I'm a Catholic . . . I'm a Baptist . . . I'm a Catholic . . . I'm a Catholic . . . I'm a Catholic." Through these situations, the individual finally comes out committed to the Catholic alternative and will probably continue to remain Catholic as long as the individual stays in the same set of social relationships.

This suggests that if one is to convert others to a particular religious identity—to make a new commitment—social interactions with the potential convert are very important. The on-the-spot conversion may be highly desired by those seeking converts because it takes so little time and requires such a small social investment by the evangelist. But in studies of sudden conversions, it is found that the conversion's effects tend to wear off and the convert is likely to change back unless he or she is sustained by significant social interactions with other committed persons at the expense of relationships with the convert's former associates.

On the other hand, those who are converted through a process of interactions with others and remain in the social interaction network are not as new commitments. Alternatives for commitments, other than the one to which the individual has converted, cannot easily enter his or her social situations. Like friendships, one's network of social interactions closes out other such alternatives.

Scientifically, it is useful to know how different types of commitments operate in the same, basic ways. Although conversions are not usually thought to be like marital choices, research suggests that the marriage decisions that are made very quickly are likely to be the first broken. Also, educational choices made on the spur of the moment, such as "I'm going to major in history rather than economics," are the most likely commitments—or conversions to a major—to be changed.

Because the concept of commitment is fairly abstract, the conversion analogy may be widely generalizable. If so, any type of quick, acute, turnabout commitments are not as likely to last.

When considering situations and alternatives, decisions and selections, and quick decisions versus drawnout decisions, a couple of points may be emphasized. First, every decision begins a commitment. Second, decision alternatives often come through social interaction. That is, they come primarily through the others with whom we relate. Friends and associates serve as major resources for commitment alternatives whether, at first, we want them or not.

Stages of a Commitment : Once a decision or a selection of alternatives has been made, as noted in Figure C.3, several stages of a commitment follow. First comes the latent stage. A latent commitment is one that has been decided upon by the individual or selected by the social structure, but it has not yet been put into effect. For instance, when a voter decides to vote for a particular candidate, the commitment has been made in his or her mind even though there has not yet been an actual opportunity to cast the vote.

Next comes the active stage. Here, a latent commitment is transformed into action. This is the actual voting behavior.

The final, passive stage switches back and forth with the active stage. It covers situations in which the previously activated commitment lies dormant. Therefore, the stages proceed as latent, active, and passive and then oscillate between the active and passive stages for the duration of the commitment. One walks across the street or reads a book. But none of these behaviors is involved with voting for the candidate. However, the next time there is an opportunity to vote for that candidate, it will be done—assuming that, meanwhile, a new commitment has not been made to an alternative candidate.

Breaking Commitments : Some commitments are broken because the person simply chooses to give them up. Certainly, commitments that are painful may be readily dropped in opportune situations where pleasurable or, at least, less painful alternatives are defined. In some cases, commitments are fulfilled when their goals are reached. When one graduates from school, one may remain committed to continuing to educate oneself, but it is inappropriate to stay and work further on the degree. That goal is completed, and the commitment is ended. In other cases, new alternatives enter the picture and give rise to a change of commitments. Job opportunities arise, and some students quit their educational commitments for more immediate career rewards.

In still other cases, commitments are terminated against one's personal choice. The person is forced to discontinue the commitment. The social structure takes the choice away and imposes a new selection.

Of the commitments that terminate with relationships with other persons, one type is ultimately traumatic. This is the death of a friend. A friend is a source of rewards. In exchange, there are feelings of obligation to the friend. But upon the friend's death, these mutual obligations cannot be repaid in a direct way. When a friend dies, the trauma is that a commitment is terminated involuntarily, and a set of rewarding exchanges is broken. This causes grief.


In brief, commitment is a process applicable to an individual's dispositions and behaviors. Commitments can be made to religion, politics, deviance, jobs, friends, a spouse, or to any disposition or behavior. Commitments may be weak or strong. Situations present alternatives for commitments. An individual either personally decides what commitment to make, or some part of the social structure selects and imposes a commitment. A latent commitment may go through active and passive stages until it is terminated. Reasons for terminating a commitment result from coercion, learning of preferable alternatives, or finishing the course of a commitment. Your commitment to reading this article is about to become passive.

See also Religiosity, Salience, Social Psychology

Ronald C. Wimberley


C. L. Cox et al., "Prescriptive Support and Commitment Processes in Close Relationships," Social Psychology Quarterly 60(March 1997):79-90

K. Gerson, No Man's Land (New York: Basic Books, 1993)

C. Y. Glock and R. Stark, Religion and Society in Tension (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965)

K. Heimer and R. L. Matsueda, "Role-Taking, Role Commitment, and Delinquency," American Sociological Review 59(1994):365-390

P. Kollock, "The Emergence of Exchange Structures," American Journal of Sociology 100(1994):313-345

W. Kox et al., "Religious Conversion of Adolescents," Sociological Analysis 52(1991):227-240

P. Morrow, The Theory and Measurement of Work Commitment (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI, 1992)

C. J. Mottaz, "Determinants of Organizational Commitment," Human Relations 41(1988):467-482

R. Stark and C. Y. Glock, American Piety (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968)

R. C. Wimberley, Commitment and Commitment Strength with Application to Political Parties , Doctoral dissertation, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 1972

R. C. Wimberley, "Conversion and Commitment," Border States 1,2(1974a): 30-41

R. C. Wimberley, "Toward the Measurement of Commitment Strength," Sociological Analysis 35(1974b):211-215

R. C. Wimberley, "Dimensions of Commitment," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 17(1978):225-240

R. C. Wimberley et al., "Conversion at a Billy Graham Crusade," Sociological Quarterly 16(1975):162-170.

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