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Religion, Community, Identity

Today 

Introduce communities

Examine community as a form of belonging and identification

Discuss ‘the Big Society’

Case study: the sociology of religion

Key Considerations 

Communities provide a primary point of social identification for many people, but… 

Do these community identifications provide social solidarity that reduces societal divisions?

Do identifications with communities within society reduce overall social cohesion?

What are the consequences of falling community identification?

What is a community? 

Communities are groups of people with ‘something’ in common (Crow and McLean, 2006, p.306)

Communities are a micro-structural attachment: individuals identifying with others via groups

People can be members of multiple communities, each of which provide them with a different sense of belonging

Moreover, these communities can be ‘nested’ together: there can be communities within communities


Sports team

Hall of Residence

University SocietyUniversity Course

Types of Community There are a number of different forms of community 

Geographic communities: The common sense and original sociological notion of community is groups living in close proximity

Communities of culture and interest: People with similar interests or ways of life

Community organisations: Concrete institutions that people are members of or associate with

Chris and Community

Communities of Meaning 

Cohen (1982; 1985) argues that communities are best understood as ‘communities of meaning’ in which community plays a symbolic role in producing social belonging

Community doesn’t just automatically exist, but is based on members’ symbolic perceptions

Members may have something in common (like location), but are only a community if they construct themselves as a community

Communities may act as a collection of people rather than providing intense attachments

Are we a community?

Virtual Communities 

Our sense of place has become less important and traditional communities of interest have become less popular


Nonetheless, the desire for identification and belonging remains


Virtual communities, or communities connected by technology, have filled some of this lack

What communities are you involved in?

Community as groups 

Membership and identification with groups is a fundamental element of human socialisation


Identifying with a group or community provides a sense of belonging that prompts conformity and social cohesion through the promotion of shared norms

Community as Identity 

As Benedict Anderson has argued, communities are mental constructs, meaning that a sense that we belong to a community requires an identification with community practices and symbols

In a simple sense, who we are is based on our perceived membership of groups and the way we understand that membership

Community is thus a ‘sense of community’ where we have a feeling that members have a shared commitment to each other or to what they have in common

The Importance of Community 

Our identifications with larger social structures are often weak

Communities provide a direct and embedded attachment to society

Your ideological viewpoint is often dependent upon your location within a community

Communities can flatten social divisions by providing a sense of belonging and social capital or networks

Do you have a sense of community at Brunel?

Community Contrasts 

Cohen (1985, p.12) argues that a community is distinguished both by what it has in common and by its differences from other communities


Communities are thus an expression of sameness and of difference


Gated residential communities are a strong example of this dynamic

Beyond Community 

Emile Durkheim used the term ‘Anomie’ to describe the breakdown between an individual and community

The individual experiences a sense of normlessness and a lack of personal value

Widespread alienation and anomie may lead to societal disorder

Without any sense of immediate social identification, wider social divisions can become much more oppressive

What was the role of community in the London riots?

The Big Society 

The ‘Big Society’ was at the core of the Conservative Party 2010 Election Manifesto and a specific element of the coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats

The core idea is to take power away from the state and into local communities

In contrast to the rejection of multiculturalism, the focus on communities allows for different forms of identification

The belief is that communities are positive contributors to society

Cameron's Society 1.



Devolving power to the lowest level so neighbourhoods take control of their destiny Opening up our public services, putting trust in professionals and power in the hands of the people they serve Encouraging volunteering and social action so people contribute more to their community.

“No more of a government treating everyone like children who are incapable of taking their own decisions. Instead, let's treat adults like adults and give them more responsibility over their lives.�

Big Social Issues 

Cameron’s turn to the Big Society came at a time of significant cuts in government funding

The ‘Big Society’, in which we all take care of each other, was to replace ‘Big Government’, which could never be funded

Critics have argued that the focus on communities is transferring responsibilities for the vulnerable from the state to individuals and communities

The Debate 

The Conservative Party has directly rejected multiculturalism because of the clash between minority cultures and majority norms


By contrast, the Conservatives have turned to localism and the ability of local (place-based) communities to determine their identity and practices, rather than the state


The hope is that communities and individuals who are empowered to contribute to their way of life will be better contributors to society

Free Schools 

The apparent contradiction between a rejection of multiculturalism and support for localism comes to fore with ‘Free Schools’

Free schools are taxpayer funded, but run by communities rather than state organisations

A large proportion of these schools are ‘faith based’ (although many applications are rejected), leading critics to suggest that they will lead to social segregation as different communities establish themselves outside of the state

This return us to the issue of religious differences

You are working for the Department of Education Under what conditions would you allow a religious community to establish a free-school?

The Sociology of Religion

Thematic returns 

This module has considered how social differences become social divisions, and how these divisions can be a form of social cohesion

Religion exemplifies these themes  Religions

are differences in belief  These differences have led to passionate social divides  Religions often provide a strong basis for social cohesion through a religious community

The sociology of religion 

Does not assess the validity of belief, but the social patterns that emerge in regards to belief 

Who believes and when?

What changes have occurred in patterns of belief?

Why have these effects occurred?

What kinds of conflict emerge from differences in belief and why?

Religion as community 

Religious communities literally view the world differently

Consequently, they have different individual and political conceptions of how the world should be that are different from other believers

Religious communities tend to have strong group cohesion and provide a powerful sense of identity

The distinction between religious communities (and nonbelievers) is a major source of societal division

What is religious belief? 

Religion is as old as humanity, but definitions are difficult

“A religion is a set of beliefs, symbols and practices based on the idea of the sacred” (Stephen Fisher)

‘Sacred’ is used to distinguish religion from other ideological perspectives

Durkheim defines 

Durkheim’s definition of religion is the most accepted:

“A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things,…, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them” (From The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 1912, p. 8)

Emile Durkheim 

Durkheim’s central focus was the cohesion of complex modern societies

As a positivist and functionalist, Durkheim examined the social facts that would explain the functional purpose of social elements 

What social structures ‘do’ to produce social cohesion

He argued that religion primarily acted to produce social cohesion in the face of difference and division

Binding forces Durkheim suggested that religion produced social cohesion by:

Providing social norms that regulate behaviour

Constructing an interpretive scheme that allows individuals to identify themselves in relation to existence

Energising collective life by providing a point of identification and purpose

Thus, for Durkheim, religion is a powerful force on the side of social order

Marx 

Like Durkheim, Marx argued that religion provided a source of solidarity

Conversely, this solidarity was a comfort in an unjust society and softened social divisions

Religious ‘myths’, especially in relation to salvation, prevent the oppressed from actively trying to overcome their present domination

Thus, for Marx, religious community is a response to social divides

“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.” Source: Karl Marx (1843) Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

Poor hope 

On a global scale, religiosity is strongest where economic and physical security are weakest (Norris and Inglehart , Sacred and Secular, 2004) Religiosity is the extent to which;   

Believes in or ‘feels’ aspects of religion Becomes involved in religious activities Believes in the teachings of the church Lives in accordance with those teachings and beliefs

The relationship between religiosity and income inequality is particularly evident in the slums of the 3rd world

Source: The Pew Global Attitudes Project, October 4, 2007

What factors might influence the global correlation between income and belief?

False consciousness? 

Critics of Marxism have argued that religion can be a driver of social change through community groups

The civil rights movement in the United States is an example of this process

Moreover, it is often religious groups who have the greatest solidarity with the poor

Secularisation 

Throughout the 20th Century social scientists predicted the end of religion – the ‘secularisation thesis’

Secularisation: The decline of religious belief, practice, and authority

Berger (1967, see Aldridge, 2009, p.133-4), suggests there are three elements to secularisation; 

 

Socio-structural: Loss of social functions e.g. education Cultural: Promotion of a secular worldview Individual: Fewer people use religion to guide their actions

Do you believe in God? 1991 (%)

2008 (%)

Believe and always have



Believe, didn’t before



Not believe, did before



Not believe, never have



Can’t choose



Not answered






Figures from British Social Attitudes (1991- 2008 ) cited in Perfect (2011), p.13

Is the decline of religious belief in England likely to damage social cohesion?

Religious States

Why might religious belief be higher in the US than other countries?

Rising individuality 

The fall is religious belief is part of a larger rejection of collective bonds within post or late modernism

Tradition and received wisdom is no longer completely accepted

Instead a culture of self-reliance and individual expression has developed

‘Just be yourself’

Decline in community bonds 

The rise in individualism has produced a similar decline in identification with traditional community organisations Political parties  Sports clubs  Organised religions  Unions  Voting 

Bowling Alone 

In his book, Bowling Alone (2000), Robert Putman outlined the decline in social capital and community involvement in America since 1950


Putnam largely attributes this decline to technological developments that cut us off from community engagement


More individualism, particularly anomic individualism, leads to greater social divisions as we lose trust in and bonds with each other

Thinking about the communities you are part of, is community membership declining, or changing?

Vital points 

Community attachment provide a sense of belonging and identification


Conversely, communities with different values can reinforce differences


Religion is a strong example of community attachment but, like other forms of community, has been steadily declining

Next Week JUST SAY NO! SOCIAL PROTEST AND THE POLITICS OF RESISTANCE READING Bernard E. Harcourt (2012) Political Disobedience. Critical Inquiry , Vol. 39, No. 1 (Autumn 2012), pp. 33-55

Religion as community 2013a  
Religion as community 2013a