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Cyclical Theory

Asian religions, and some classical western philosophers, believed that history consisted of an endless series of cycles: the Wheel of Life, eternal return, or eternal recurrence. This idea can also be found in nineteenth-century European philosophies that related to religion, notably the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, and it is not entirely implausible that processes analogous to the individual’s life cycle occur on larger, societal scales.

Probably the most impressive cyclical theory that gives religion a central role is the one proposed by Pitirim A. Sorokin. For Sorokin, the most influential elements of culture are those that concern the inner experience of people, their images, ideas, volitions, feelings, and emotions. The essence of a culture is defined by the view people have of the nature of reality, the goals they value, and the means they emphasize in reaching these goals.

In his theory, each great civilization emerges out of a period of chaos with a coherent set of spiritual beliefs that give it strength. Often it is born in the development of a new religious tradition. At this point, it is what Sorokin called an ideational culture. A successful ideational culture grows and develops. With success, however, comes complaisance. The society slowly loses its faith in spirituality, doubt sets in, and the culture begins to become sensate, a perspective on existence that is the opposite of ideational. A sensate culture believes that reality is whatever the sense organs perceive, and it does not believe in any supernatural world. Its aims are physical or sensual, and it seeks to achieve them through exploiting or changing the external world.

Depending upon circumstances, most people in a sensate society will exhibit one of three personality orientations. Active individuals use technology and empire-building to take charge of the material world. Passive individuals indulge themselves in pleasures of the flesh. And cynical individuals exploit the prevailing conditions for their own profit without any ideal to provide fundamental values. The entire cycle of which he wrote can take many centuries to complete, but Sorokin believed that western society was approaching a crisis point.

Ultimately, a sensate civilization is likely to crash, ushering in a new period of intense cultural chaos out of which a new ideational civilization may be born. Sorokin wrote, “Neither the decay of the Western society and culture, nor their death, is predicted by my thesis. What it does assert… is simply that one of the most important phases of their life history, the Sensate, is now ending and that we are turning toward its opposite through a period of transition. Such a period is always disquieting, grim, cruel, bloody, and painful” (vol. 3, p. 537).

Were Sorokin alive today, he probably would cite the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as confirmation of his theory, suggest that it would result in widespread conflict and religious revival in Islamic societies, even as European Christian culture continued to descend toward at least temporary collapse.

It deserves note that the notion of a cyclical periodicity has been also applied to Western religions, and to more narrow phenomena such as political movements.  For example, some researchers (Jelen 1991; Lienesch 1993) have suggested that religiously motivated political activity in the United States follows a cyclical pattern, based in part on the activation of negative affect toward out-groups (e.g. immigrants, homosexuals), and the subsequent mobilization of religious particularism.


Jelen, Ted G.  1991.  The Political Mobilization of Religious Beliefs.  New York, NY: Praeger.

Lienesch, Michael.  1993.  Redeeming America: Piety and Politics in the New Christian Right.  Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. 1937. Social and Cultural Dynamics. New York: American Book Company.

The following Concepts can potentially capture some of the ideas of this theory.
This refers to one's level of religious commitment. It is most commonly measured through self-report of various practices. Frequency of attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer, and reading sacred texts are all potential indicators of religiosity.  However, beliefs such as Biblical literalism can also be used as indicators of religiosity, but they are limited in their general application due to a tradition-specific relevance.  It is also worth noting that religious groups vary in the frequency with which they require certain types of practice.  Other potential measures, such as how much money a person gives to their place of worship, are occasionally used. View related items in the Measurement Wizard:

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The type and amount of religious actions an individual exhibits. Closely tied to the concept of religiosity, religious behavior focuses upon what individuals are doing in relation to religion specifically. The most commonly used measure of religious behavior is church or worship service attendance. Research shows that the act of attending alone exerts a powerful influence on individuals. Private forms of practice such as frequency of prayer or the reading of sacred scriptures are also important considerations.  Other forms of religious behavior that can be operationalized are contributions toward, and participation in religious activities or entities outside of worship. Self-reported religious experience can also be used as a measure of religious behavior. This measure is less well-known and as such, utilized less in research. View related items in the Measurement Wizard:
On its most basic level, religious belief refers to views toward the supernatural. Usually paired in research with measures of religious tradition and religious behavior, measuring religious belief allows researchers to gain insight into what respondents are thinking concerning the supernatural. One of the most common religious belief measures is whether or not respondents believe in God. A new strain of research is focusing not just on if individuals believe in God, but specifically what they believe God to be like. The images of God variables are used to create various scales that have proven to be highly predictive of attitudes and behavior. Probably the most common religious belief measure used in religious research is biblical literalism. This variable grouped with religious tradition and religious behavior is a common set of religious controls for any statistical model. Beyond these religious beliefs, a less-used list of other beliefs exists. Belief in Hell, Jesus, salvation, Satan, angels, demons, heaven, or the "end times" provide a rich palate of possible research opportunities dealing with religious belief. View related items in the Measurement Wizard:

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This refers to religious self-identification (Smith, 1998:233). One ongoing discussion within the sociology of religion is how to categorize religious individuals. In the past researchers have created categories, then placed individuals into them by religious affiliation or certain religious beliefs. For example, to categorize individuals as Evangelical Protestants researchers could use their religious denomination (e.g., Southern Baptist) or certain beliefs commonly attributed to Evangelicals (e.g., individuals must be "born-again" to receive salvation). However, religious identity is now being used as another way to categorize individuals, relying entirely on respondents to place themselves within a certain category. A strength of this specific categorization technique is that it ensures the individual sees the classification as appropriate, rather than just being placed there by a researcher according to a predefined typology.  There are some drawbacks to this technique, however, such as the diffuse and often political nature of certain religious terms such as "evangelical" or "fundamentalist." View related items in the Measurement Wizard:
This refers to an "individual's evaluations of competing religious goods" (Sherkat 1997:69). Religious preferences as a concept is used to explain why individuals participate in different religions or choose varying styles of religion. It seeks to answer why specific religious choices are made. Generally, religious preferences are adaptive, grow stronger with consumption, and can respond to new information. Individuals learn their preferences through socialization and past experiences; immersion in religious communities causes individuals to have particular religious understandings which give religion value (Sherkat 1997:70). Some possible operationalizations of religious preferences include how individuals view the Bible, God, or the path to salvation. Each of these are theological (and therefore cultural) issues that serve as markers to what types of religious goods individuals prefer. Worship style preference could also approximate the preferences individuals might have for religious goods. Some might desire an experiential or emotionally expressive faith, while others prefer more formalized rituals. View related items in the Measurement Wizard:  
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