Monday, September 08, 2008

Max Weber: The Sociology of Religion - My first sip

Having re-acquainted myself with the routines of a student during the recent Pali Summer School, albeit only for 12 days, I'm now delving into some of the reading material that I shall need to embrace in my forthcoming studies.

A couple of weeks ago, whilst ambling towards Oxford's city centre, I popped into a charity bookshop and spotted one of the items on the reading list, as given in last year's degree pamphlet. It's 'The Sociology of Religion' by Max Weber, translated from the German into English by Ephraim Fischoff with an introduction by Talcott Parsons, this edition published in 1966 in a 'Social Science Paperbacks' series in assocation with Methuen & Co. (nearest match I can find has different publisher but probably the same text).

I have not studied any sociology, at least not formally, and I can't recall ever having considered studying it in the past. It was not a subject that was taught at my secondary school and the subjects I chose to pursue at University over a period of about 8 years were mathematics and computer science. Sociology has seemed a world away from all this and although I worked previously at Derby University, where there was significant work in this field, my focus was on the I.T., multifaith activities and fundraising!

Now it's time to take a much closer look...  At this stage, before I attend any formal lectures or receive tutorials, I intend to examine some of the literature and jot down ideas, responses and particularly to try to go engage with the texts by questioning what comes my way, trying to make sense of it by comparing and contrasting with what knowledge I have in other fields.  I'll do this piecemeal in a number of posts - comments that may help me properly understand what this is all about are welcome!

Picking up the book, I notice it's a fair thickness, but not huge, though it does include two prefaces that combined amount to around 60 pages! Not having any knowledge, I expect these to shed light and indeed as I come to learn that this work is a fragment of a greater whole, it seems that I really will need a guide to the work.   So let's start then with the context, which is very broad - Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft - a huge opus in German, translated as 'Economy and Society' of which 'Religionssoziologie' (The Sociology of Religion) is one portion. Alas I can't read or write German, so I'm dependent on translation and am well aware that nuances can get lost and extra bits can get added in. Indeed, a review by Reinhard Bendix [Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion Vol. 3, No. 2 (Spring, 1964), pp. 268-270], indicates particularly how some extra meaning has crept in. However, overall, as that review suggests, I think these will be minor and the translation will be generally fine.

Turning the front cover of the book reveals a short 100-150 word abstract which mentions "the casual role of religion in social change." What is meant by "casual"? Nowadays it tends to mean informal (as in 'casual dress') or only temporary, not permanent, as in 'casual worker,' but I assume here that it is more along the lines of 'what happens [to be the case]', from the Latin casus, meaning 'having fallen,' which could be in the sense "this year Christmas Day falls on a Sunday."). So I guess a 'casual' role might be how religious occurrences and phenomena can be observed as affecting social change. It has an accidental, chance ring about it, something that's a byproduct, 'by the way.'

The change element appears key - the preface and introduction talk a lot about social action and the dynamics of change. We are informed that the focus is not on religion per se but its effects. Thus, it is establishing a basis for looking at how religions impact [in a major way] society and I see it would naturally lend itself to analysis of reform movements, engagement etc, rather than focusing on the static and conservative aspects.

It's probably worth spending some time looking at this deliberate decision and considering its implications. Analogous decisions are made in other disciplines - there's a weighing up of two analytical approaches oriented on what I call 'structure vs. flow' - crudely speaking what it is and what it does respectively. In my computer science research in formal methods, I learnt quite early on that a standard division is made between axiomatic techniques and process algebras. The kind of language you choose depends upon what you are seeking to model. Axiomatic techniques traditionally excel in data-rich applications, whereas process algebras suit modelling action-based behaviours, commonly used in safety-critical applications where you want to prove such a sequence of actions will/won't happen etc. In practice, elements of each are present implicitly or explicitly in a given language, but sometimes both are needed to completely model and analyse a system.

So let's have a pause there.  :-)

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