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Cultural Theories of Religion

There is not an explicit, formal paradigm or general consensus about how to use cultural theories to study religion, but rather a variety of qualitative, quantitative, and theoretical texts with overlapping interests in the cultural meanings, uses, and roles of religion (see Edgell 2012 for an overview).  Cultural theories of religion examine how religious institutions, communities, and symbols are embodied and connected to other aspects of society.  Generally speaking, studies using cultural theories focus on how cultural boundaries and meanings are constructed by interpretive communities, as well as how the institutions and symbols of religion are used in both mediated communication and social interactions (Hall, Neitz, and Battani 2003).  As a result, studies using cultural theories range across many different disciplines (e.g., religious studies, history, anthropology, sociology, and political science), with disciplinary distinctions primarily following the research methods employed (e.g., exegesis, content analysis, histories of religions, ethnography, survey research, and comparative-historical).  What unites these disparate lines of inquiry is a constructionist theoretical orientation and attention to how religious communities create and negotiate meaning (Berger 1967; Geertz 1973).  Following Pierre Bourdieu (1991), some theorists also work to situate the distribution of cultural goods, including non-material and spiritual “goods,” within broader frameworks of power and political economies (Swartz 1996; Verter 2003).

Explicit applications of cultural approaches have been used to study a wide range of substantive topics, including religious organizations (Becker 1999), connections between familial structures and religion (Edgell 2005), social movements and change (Wilde 2004), ecstatic experiences (Taves 2016), religious elements of political discourse (Williams 1996, 1999, 2013), secularities (Baker and Smith 2015), and the paranormal (Bader, Baker, and Mencken 2017; Kripal 2010).  Importantly, cultural approaches offer avenues to theoretical integration in the study of religion by virtue of inter-disciplinary dialogue, including areas of the biological sciences studying physiological and cognitive aspects of religion (Taves 2009).



Bader, Christopher D., Joseph O. Baker, and F. Carson Mencken.  2017.  Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture, second edition.  New York: New York University Press.

Baker, Joseph O. and Buster G. Smith.  2015.  American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems.  New York: New York University Press.

Becker, Penny Edgell.  1999.  Congregations in Conflict: Cultural Models of Local Religious Life.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Berger, Peter L.  1967.  The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion.  New York: Anchor Books.

Bourdieu, Pierre.  1993.  “Genesis and Structure of the Religious Field.”  Comparative Social Research 13: 1–44.

Edgell, Penny.  2012.  “A Cultural Sociology of Religion: New Directions.”  Annual Review of Sociology 38: 247–65.

Geertz, Clifford.  1973.  Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.

Hall, John R., Mary Jo Neitz, and Marshall Battani.  2003.  Sociology on Culture. London: Routledge.

Kripal, Jeffrey.  2010.  Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Swartz, David.  1996.  “Bridging the Study of Culture and Religion: Pierre Bourdieu’s Political Economy of Symbolic Power.”  Sociology of Religion 57(1): 71–85.

Taves, Ann.  2009.  Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Taves, Ann.  2016.  Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Verter, Bradford.  2003.  “Spiritual Capital: Theorizing Religion with Bourdieu Against Bourdieu.”  Sociological Theory 21(2): 150–74.

Wilde, Melissa J.  2004.  “How Culture Mattered at Vatican II: Collegiality Trumps Authority in the Council’s Social Movement Organizations.”  American Sociological Review 69(4): 576–602.

Williams, Rhys H.  1996.  “Religion as Political Resource: Culture or Ideology?”  Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 35(4): 368–78.

Williams, Rhys H.  1999.  “Visions of the Good Society and the Religious Roots of American Political Culture.”  Sociology of Religion 60(1): 1–34.

Williams, Rhys H. 2013.  “Civil Religion and the Cultural Politics of National Identity in Obama’s America.”  Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 52(2): 239–57.

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