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Sub-Cultural Identity Theory

This perspective posits that religion survives and can thrive in pluralistic, modern society by embedding itself in subcultures that offer satisfying, morally-orienting collective identities which provide adherents with meaning and a sense of belonging.

In a pluralistic society, religious groups which are better at transmitting and employing the cultural tools needed to create both clear distinction from, and significant engagement and tension with other relevant out-groups (short of becoming genuinely countercultural), will be relatively successful (Smith, 1998:118-119).  Although similar to the religious economies claim that groups at a medium level of sociocultural tension will attract the most adherents, this perspective focuses more on issues of identity and symbolic boundaries by drawing on cultural sociology.


Evans, John H. 2003. “The Creation of a Distinct Subcultural Identity and Denominational Growth.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42: 467-77.

McConkey, Dale.  2001.  “Whither Hunter’s Culture War? Shifts in Evangelical Morality, 1988-1998.” Sociology of Religion 62: 149-74.

Schwalbe, Michael L. and Douglas Mason-Schrock.  1996.  “Identity Work as Group Process.”  Advances in Group Processes 13:113-147.

Smith, Christian, Michael Emerson, Sally Gallagher, Paul Kennedy, and David Sikkink. 1998. American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Wellman, James K. Jr. 1999. “Introduction: The Debate over Homosexual Ordination: Subcultural Identity Theory in American Religious Organizations.” Review of Religious Research 41: 184-206.

The following Concepts can potentially capture some of the ideas of this theory.
The organizational form that dominant religious traditions assume in a pluralistic culture (Christiano et al., 2002:101). Denominationalism refers to the subdivision of a particular religion. A common example is Protestant Christianity in the United States. While each denomination ascribes to what are considered foundational tenets of the Christian faith, they maintain separate identities due to differences in what are considered peripheral issues. However, some denominations might consider that others have actually left the "true" Christian faith. A central method for measuring denominationalism is RELTRAD. Steensland et al. proposed this typology in 2000, and it is currently the most widely accepted way of accounting for differences in religious tradition in random sample data.  Included within the typology are Evangelical, Mainline, and Black Protestants. These could be used to approximate differences believed to be due to denominationalism.  Another popular schematic was developed by Smith (1990), which is used on the General Social Survey. View related items in the Measurement Wizard:
Pluralism refers to the amount of religious diversity in a given area.  Rather than being a simple count of the number of different religions, it is typically defined as the amount of “evenness” with regard religious affiliation in an area. Secularization and religious economies perspectives are at odds over the consequences of pluralism, with the former positing that it leads to increasing irreligion and privatization, while the latter suggests that increased religious competition fosters strength in religious organizations (cf. Berger 1967; Bruce 2002; Finke and Stark 1988, 1998; Stark, Finke, and Iannaccone 1995).  Pluralism has frequently been measured with the Herfindahl index; however the debate over the consequences of pluralism for religious vitality remains unresolved due to methodological problems resulting from the use of the Herfindahl index to predict adherence rates (see Voas, Olson, and Crockett 2002).
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 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.
This phenomenon is marked by holding to the authority of Scripture, the veracity of supernatural miracles, exclusive salvation, and encouraging a separation from "the world" (Woodberry and Smith, 1998:28). The term fundamentalism is derived from reaction movements to the modernist and liberal strains of Protestantism that arose at the turn of the 20th century, but has since been applied to movements within different religious traditions such as Islam andHinduism (see Almond, Appleby and Scott 2003). Christian fundamentalism tends to favor a premillenialist dispensationalism believing that the world will grow worse and worse, despite any human intervention, until Jesus Christ's return to earth. Accordingly, fundamentalists believe in maintaining a strict separation from the world and rarely encourage a social gospel, which is usually attributed to more liberal Protestant groups. Common ways of measuring fundamentalism is by using RELTRAD and accounting for a person's religious tradition. Fundamentalists are most likely found in the Evangelical Protestant or Black Protestant traditions. Fundamentalists are also very likely to ascribe a literal and perfect view of the Bible. Due to the premillenialist views of fundamentalists researchers could use a belief in certain "End Times" prophecies to designate those in this strain of Christianity. A belief in Jesus and Jesus being the only way to salvation are also markers that can be used to measure fundamentalism.  This concept may also be measure by self-identification with the term fundamentalist. View related items in the Measurement Wizard:
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