Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Weber's Sociology of Religion: Setting up the Theory

The introduction to this edition of [Fischoff's translation of] Weber's Sociology of Religion is given by Talcott Parsons, who appears to be a very distinguished American sociologist, the 39th President of the American Sociological Association. It's quite weighty and I'm not sure how much I'll read before I move on, but I'm grateful for any elucidation.

Early on, Parsons states:''his focus was not upon religion "as such," as the theologian or church historian conceives it, but upon the relations between religious ideas and commitments and other aspects of human conduct.'' The foundations were laid in his earlier work 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism' (see e.g. the online transcription at the University of Virginia) - the Wikipedia entry describes how it is "an introduction into Weber's later studies of interaction between various religious ideas and economics."  In my first post I had highlighted the element of change and in the subsequent post, I picked up on Fischoff's attention to the processes of association.

Where does it all lead?  That earlier work's conclusion paints an image of how mechanistic working has become. "The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so."  He continues, "For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order." The detachment from the puritan roots, Weber reasoned, was reached post-reformation, without the Church, where most people couldn't determine for themselves a replacement religious authority apart from every day senses of achievement.  In the process of rationalization [Parsons emphasizes the centrality of this conception, pp. xxxii-xxxiii] there would be a tendency based solely on efficiency or calculation and so detachment from the religious roots.  It seems a very bleak picture (at least from a spiritual perspective).

Problems in Concepts and Analysis

After describing some context for Weber's work, Parsons introduces some of the major challenges in developing a systematic approach.  The first problem listed concerns our conceptual frameworks of the cosmos, covering divinity and religious interests. Do these influence mundane activities, e.g. economic action?

A second major problem is an analytical problem: the isolation of variables is sought so as to effectively measure their significance, which requires experimental methods that hold factors constant. It's then asserted that 'degrees of favourableness' of material factors approximate to the varying levels of development of capitalism. If all the materials factors can be held constant, the differing outcomes would point to religion being a significant factor.

So I expect analysis could be carried out between cities in Western Europe and South Asia and South-East Asia, not just overall, but at different levels of material wealth - what account should be taken at the extent of variability? I think it might be instructive to look especially at what happens at different levels of poverty, because it's often observed that, say, people with few possessions in Thailand and other Asian countries are seemingly quite content - since long before major economic development.  Is this contentment with materially little the case in the UK? Probably less so now than before because material expectations are greater nowadays (a facet of consumerism).

There have been many attempts at devising a global 'well-being' index, but different cultures have different values, so it's fraught with difficulty. For example, work on a Personal Wellbeing Index, devised in Australia indicates that objective measures are often idiosyncratic and thence, "With these issues in mind, the Personal Wellbeing Index has been developed to measure the subjective dimension of QOL – Subjective Wellbeing. "

A major issue is the completeness of variables in something so complex as society. It is readily acknowledged that there are many variables that would, for example, have a bearing on economic capitalism - the Wikipedia entry on the 'Protestant Ethic and Spiritual Capitalism' lists some examples: "the rationalism in scientific pursuit, merging observation with mathematics, science of scholarship and jurisprudence, rational systematisation of government administration and economic enterprise." So isn't the method somewhat on shaky ground, because can we ever be sure when we have an exhaustive list?   I reflect that the challenge is to determine meaningful conclusions about causality needs to deal with complexity and yet be sensitive to the tiniest vibration - famously expressed in chaos theory as the butterfly effect - though I actually think causality needs a moral basis - as expressed in the Buddha's teachings on kamma-vipaka.

[Pause for reflection: consider how the Buddha instituted the Sangha, and the economics that flowed associated with that, a veritable ecosystem - here the economics clearly followed from religion.]


A couple of new terms for me:

(i) Idiographic methods (the book spells 'ideographic' but that seems to have another meaning) -- the study of the individual, which tends to specificity and deals with subjectivity.

(ii) Nomothetic - the study of cohorts - the methods of natural science, which tends to generalisation and deals with observation.

A theory of human behaviour needs principles, definitions of processes, propositions and so on.  As Parsons states: "Causes of human behaviour cannot be found and established without implicit or explicit use of abstract and general concepts and propositions." An illustration or two would have been helpful, but I take it that this will become evident.  He goes on to stress that Weber retains some elements of historicist and idealist traditions, but the shift to general observation evidently carries many risks and I'm not surprised at the remarks by Parsons about the prominence of positivist reductionism with "Behaviorism an extreme manifestation."  There comes to my mind scenes from Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in which the world is a laboratory experiment created by mice ... I think it reflects movement towards a kind of void.

One of the primary issues is a tendency to relativism, a term I've heard a lot with plenty of discussion, views and opinions etc.

Two foci:

  1. Interpret action by understanding motices from "subjective" viewpoint [i.e. understanding intentions], put oneself in their shoes; but use patterns of meaning.

    This leads to ideal types, a cornerstone in Weber's system, of which 'Protestant Ethics' and the 'Spirit/Esprit of Capitalism' are two such types.  [Weber defines this there as: "An ideal type is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged according to those one-sidedly emphasized viewpoints into a unified analytical construct. [The methodology of the social sciences (Edward A. Shils & Henry A. Finch, Trans. & Eds.; foreword by Shils). New York: Free Press, 1997 (1903-1917). p.88.] 

    Weber's concept of the "ideal type" was the main path to the formulation of a general theory which incorporated "subjective" factors, the method of Verstehen.  So this is the response to my query in my previous post about the collective orientation.  Will it work sufficiently well...?

    The word "ideal" may seem odd to an English language speaker as it's usual connotation is to do with a goal of perfection, but I've seen it before - ideals are commonly found in algebra, specifically in ring theory.  The algebraic concept looks similar in vein in that it deals with groupings/representations of elements that exhibit properties common among individual numbers.  The algebraic term was apparently coined by Dedekind, a German mathematician, so I guess the word has a subtlety of meaning in German that doesn't get carried over in translation.

  2. System of meaning (Sinnzusammenhänge): this links interests (motives) with situations to "understand" peoples' individual actions.

Weber was thus trying to develop a technical framework (German: Handeln) and found that a generalised framework was easier to work with than one treating specifics.

I'll end this post with a couple of questions.

  1. To what extent are religious teachings idiographic or nomothetic?  In comparison, the Buddha formulated systematic teachings himself - in his great teachings on Paticcasamuppada (Dependent Origination) [a translation available] is about individual behaviours, but with collective effects.  It might be regarded as the epitome of process-oriented systems of thought! Incidentally, the fact that one may observe a group with same outward properties (e.g. a group receives an apparent windfall) doesn't imply any group actions to earn that windfall - the kamma could have been carried out separately by each individual, but with similar vipaka.]
  2. What are the implications of paying attention to external vs internals (of spiritual life)?  I think it leads to diminished significance of the spiritual life (and so works against Weber's wish to adopt the "subjective" point of view).

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