Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1924-) Alumni Distinguished Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

A native of Washington, D.C., Gerhard Lenski earned both his B.A. (1947) and Ph.D. (1950) at Yale University. He served on the faculty of the University of Michigan from 1950 to 1963, and on the eve of his advancement to the rank of professor, left Michigan to become Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he later would serve as department chair (1965-1972) and Chair of the Division of Social Sciences (1976-1978). His accomplishments in the general field of sociology place him among the most widely recognized practitioners of his generation.

Lenski's writings in the sociology of religion were confined to the first two decades of his academic career (e.g., 1953, 1971), largely centering on a single crucial research contribution. Although he would later gain wide recognition for his work in the areas of social stratification and social theory, his 1961 opus The Religious Factor: A Sociological Study of Religion's Impact on Politics, Economics, and Family Life (Doubleday) brought him acclaim both as a general sociologist and as a sociologist of religion.

Why was this one publication so important, and especially so for sociologists of religion? First, the empirical research on which the book was based (the 1957-1958 Detroit Area Study) was the first major application of the then emerging techniques of survey research to the subject matter of religion. In this sense, The Religious Factor launched the sociology of religion as a field for empirical social scientific research. Second, Lenski's research provided an empirical test of some of the major themes of Max Weber's sociology of religion, the most important of which was his construct of a "Protestant ethic." By empirically investigating and comparing distinct religio-ethnic communities (whites, blacks, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews), Lenski was able to document the apparent social consequences of religious group membership. Finally, Lenski's measurement of religion as a multidimensional phenomenon would open the door to much conceptual innovation within the sociology of religion for the next several decades.

Although today sociologists of religion have moved far beyond the conceptualizations on which Lenski's The Religious Factor was based, there is no overstating its importance. This study announced the arrival of the subfield as an empirical branch of sociology, and for a time quieted the long debate over the possibilities for studying religion scientifically.

See also Communal Involvement

William M. Newman


G. Lenski, "Social Correlates of Religious Interest," American Sociological Review 18(1953):533-544

G. Lenski, "The Religious Factor in Detroit Revisited," American Sociological Review 36(1971):48-50.

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