Monday, September 08, 2008

Weber's Sociology of Religion: Orientation

For my second post on Weber's Sociology of Religion, I now arrive at the translator's preface (I'm not progressing very quickly, am I?!)   I'm interested in viewpoints and see that here the view is on religious phenomena. I have to familiarise myself with the goals, approach, terminology - it's all new to me. Fischoff describes how Weber sought in his 'Religionssoziologie' a very systematic treatment of many topics - so could it be called an early form of 'sociological systems thinking'? The preface helps ease my feeling of disorientation by giving some idea about the context of this book, where it fits into the greater whole: "... in this new edition of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, the 'Religionssoziologie' section appears towards the end of the first volumne, in the second part." [p. xii]. 

We are informed that 'Religionssoziologie' is preceded by dealing with types of communital and societal institutions.  So I guess a whole lot of terminology is assumed, and much of the foundation work in terms of approach - important to know as we're informed that Weber tried to be systematic and adopt a scientific approach.  Stepping out and considering the sum of Weber's works, Fischoff describes how the work evolved from 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism' plus a number of books describing world religions from a sociological point of view, including 'Indian religion: Hinduism and Buddhism.'  So a proper departure point for the study of Weber is no small task!

Why did Weber feel a need to develop a sociological theory?  Some indications are given, most notably the influence of religion on occidental rationalism, specifically capitalism (economic sphere). Fischoff treats the study of religion and its scholars and remarks that Weber possesses many remarkable qualities, particularly "disinterested and impartial observation."  So the contribution to the field comes from a combination of scientific detachment and sociological perspective to present an analytical treatment of human social activity. It all sounds impressive, but is there such an observer as described?  And does his system actually work?

On the question of methodology, Weber's major concerns appear to include broad learning, methodological refinement, and descriptive analysis. Regarding methodological refinement, I wonder what consideration is there of the validity of the method and checks for this?

Turning back to the content of the theory, the collective, group focus is especially key: indeed the subtitle (introduced on p. xii) is "Typen der religiosen Verge" - "Types of religious association" which could be various kinds of groupings as indicated above, here particularly that one associates with religion - e.g. 'church' and 'prayer group.'

We can probe into the question of what type of associations? Fischoff's explanation reads more into it: "suggests the definition of the situation for Weber as a sociologist, oriented to the social causes and influences as well as the social effects and interrelations of religion upon group life." i.e. how society and religion affect each other at the group level. This is giving more attention to the processes of association.  Further, the association might be (I think is) treated more abstractly, in terms of ideas, as in behaviour A is associated with the religious facet X (or vice versa) ..." [I'm trying to connect with the theory of "ideal types" introduced later on.]

More fundamentally, I wonder about the focus on group vs individual. When  considering the processes of association there's a familiar sense and meaning about people associating with other people.  In Buddhism the Maha Mangala Sutta is well known and has important advice about associations - the first blessing is "not to associate with fools!" and the second one is "to associate with the wise." However, this is an exhortation primarily aimed at the individual. Furthermore, associations are discussed in great detail in the Sigalovada Sutta, but again this is focused on the individual.  Of course, there may be groups of individuals behaving the same way, but that's not always the case, and the behaviours of groups with strong individual behaviours may not be explicable in terms of group modalities. Yes? No? What is lost through analysis at the group level?

Actually, I wonder more generally - beyond the context of associations - about the generation of a social theory that gathers itself primarily around the collective viewpoint.  Why not start at the individual and expand out?  For the Buddha taught: "in this fathom long body is the origin of the world, its cessation and the path leading to cessation." [Rohitassa Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 4:45].  Viewpoints are so fundamental.  Perhaps I'm mistaken with the impression that this work is primarily built on a collective perspective or perhaps I'm missing some other point - I should read on!

No comments: