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Social Network Theory

Studies of conversion, religious schisms, and secularization utilize social network theory to understand the influence of community and networks on the religious life of individuals, groups and societies. In his classic study of suicide, Emile Durkheim used religion as an indicator of how well or poorly a society was socially integrated; other research indicates that religion actively builds social networks (Durkheim 1897, Stark and Bainbridge 1981, Bainbridge 1987, Bainbridge 2006).

Religion may produce strong social networks, but it also depends upon them. Thus religion may feature as either the independent or dependent variable in studies related to this theoretical perspective. There are a number of studies of social networks where religious vitality is the result of levels of social integration (Bainbridge 1990, Stark and Bainbridge 1980, Bainbridge 1989).  Also see “Conversion Theory.”


Bainbridge, William Sims. 1987. Sociology Laboratory. Belmont, California: Wadsworth.

Bainbridge, William Sims. 1989. “The Religious Ecology of Deviance.” American Sociological Review 54: 288-295.

Bainbridge, William Sims. 2006. God from the Machine: Artificial Intelligence Models of Religious Cognition. Walnut Grove, California: AltaMira.

Bainbridge, William Sims. 1990. “Explaining the Church Member Rate.” Social Forces 68: 1287-1296.

Durkheim, Emile. [1897] 1951. Suicide. New York: Free Press.

Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. 1980. “Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation.” Annual Review of the Social Sciences of Religion 4: 85-199.

Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. 1981. “Suicide, Homicide, and Religion: Durkheim Reassessed.” Annual Review of the Social Sciences of Religion 5: 33-56

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 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:  
This refers to the religious affiliation and ideological composition of people within one's social network.  A wide variety of studies have indicated that social networks play an important role in social processes such as conversion to new ideological positions, apostasy, and the overall maintenance of worldviews.  Network influence can be examined in a variety of ways using both qualitative and quantitative methods.  In general, the closer those in one's network are to the actor, and the more the relationships are valued, the stronger their influence.  Based on this body of research, the influence of social networks on religious preference, ideology, and religiosity is one of the most established findings in the sociology of religion.
A breakdown of society marked by high rates of migration and by sparse or fragmented networks of social relations.  This concept is more often used in the literature on criminology.  Accordingly that is the best place to look for precedent regarding measurement and application.  Common indicators used for social disorganization include: population turnover, density, and heterogeneity (racial and/or economic), as well as crime rates, unemployment, and single-parent households.  Social disorganization is also notable for its introduction of spatial elements into criminological theory and research.
The situation when a high fraction of friendships or other social relations of members of a religious group are with fellow members rather than outsiders.  This sometimes also referred to as the "density" of one's social network.  It has been noted that social encapsulation tends to increase as a religious group's level of tension with the surrounding socio-cultural environment increases. View related items in the Measurement Wizard:
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