V. Power, Gender and Discourse

Critical Discourse Analysis and Critical Sociology of Religion


Titus Hjelm

If recent English-language textbooks are the measure, critical sociology of religion does not currently exist (see Aldridge 2007; Davie 2007; Furseth and Repstad 2006; Hamilton 2001; McGuire 2002; Possamai 2009; Roberts and Yamane 2011; cf. Lundskow 2008; Goldstein 2006). There is critical and emancipatory work on religion vis-a-vis ethnicity, gender and sexuality - very much less on religion and class - of course, but this does not constitute anything resembling a coherent critical approach. One reason for this, I think, is that looking at paradigmatic textbook wisdom, 'living' sociology of religion seems to descend almost exclusively from Durkheim and Weber. Sociology's third foundational figure, Marx, is often glossed over by trotting out his 150-year-old critique of religion as 'the opium of the people', reducing critique to an historical curiosity. This 'reductionist or illusionist tradition' does not seem to have room alongside the 'great comparative sociologists', Durkheim and Weber (Collins 2007: 2023). Unfortunately, this attitude also reflects much recent scholarship.

In this chapter I want to suggest critical discourse analysis (CDA) as a framework for a critical agenda in the sociology of religion. By combining discourse theory and critical, Marxist theory - both underrepresented in current sociology of religion - CDA provides an approach to examining the legitimacy of religion and religions, and the ways in which religion contributes to the construction, reproduction and transformation of inequality.

Critical Sociology of Religion and the Importance of Discourse

The starting point for a critical sociology of religion that takes discourse seriously is in two relatively recent developments in the modern world. First, although yet insufficiently studied, there are indications that the much-discussed global resurgence of religion is connected with the likewise global expansion of deregulated capitalist markets. So far research has been mostly interested in the individualising aspects of consumer societies and the consequent interest in 'spirituality' (as opposed to more institutionalised 'religion', e.g. Heelas and Woodhead 2005). But there are other ways of looking at the relationship in the context of the twenty-first century: on the one hand, globalisation and deregulation threaten tradition in general and religion in particular, which creates religious opposition movements such as the Taliban and American conservative evangelicalism, to name two of the most visible examples. On the other hand, increasing global inequalities can be seen to create a 'market' for religions that provide a 'promise of salvation' (Riesebrodt 2010) for the global underclass, in a similar (if not the same) sense as Marx envisioned when talking about the 'sigh of the oppressed creature' (Marx 1844: 175; see McLellan 1987). Despite a period when social class fell out of fashion in the social sciences, ever more obvious and increasing inequalities in the developed countries reproduce these developments on the regional, national and local levels. If ever there was a time for a critical, engaged sociology of religion, this would be it. Yet, the paradigmatic discussions (as represented by textbook knowledge) still revolve around the question of disappearance versus resurgence of religion, with little or no attention paid to religious inequality and religions' role in reproducing and transforming inequality. In the last section of the chapter, I will discuss three ways in which a critical discourse analytical approach could address this imbalance. As is clear from the above, my justification for a critical sociology of religion is a pragmatic - there are significant gaps in research - rather than a methodological one. The debate around positivist and normative sociology of religion is well covered by Goldstein (2006), for example.

The second development, the 'mediatization' of culture - the process through which our everyday knowledge becomes increasingly mediated by forms of mass communication - is a ubiquitous aspect of modern societies. Writing in 1990, John B. Thompson, who coined the term, was prescient in his analysis (Thompson 1990). While in 1990 the media explosion was already apparent, Thompson's (and others') main concern at the time was the one-sidedness of media communication. Unlike the face-to-face situation, a response to a newspaper article only rarely becomes public. In the twenty-first century, however, previously unforeseen forms of mediated social interaction have emerged: blogs and social media abound with commentary of news from around the world, for example. Words and symbols have ceased to be the exclusive property of elites. Even if Internet access is not equal globally, the '21st-century citizen will work in media-, text-, and symbol-saturated environments. For the unemployed, underemployed, and employed alike, a great deal of service and information-based work, consumption, and leisure depends on their capacities to construct, control, and manipulate texts and symbols' (Luke 1995-6: 5-6). It is therefore not an exaggeration to say that we live in an age of discourse.

The above provides a backdrop or a Zeitdiagnose - a 'diagnosis of our time' (Hjelm 2009; Mannheim 1944) - of the context in which sociology of religion finds itself in the twenty-first century. Against this backdrop it seems that (1) there is a distinct lacuna in the field regarding critical (Marxist) approaches to religion in the modern world that take issues of domination and inequality seriously, and (2) that it is premature to claim - somewhat fashionably - that the study of discourse is outdated. There have been calls for abandoning the study of discourse in favour of the study of practice. While I agree that ritual and non-propositional forms of practice are central to understanding religion, text and practice are not incompatible: studying discourse is not only about studying what things mean to people, but what people do when they talk about things. A discursive approach does not, therefore, contrast saying and doing; both are included. In other words, discourse analysis in the sociology of religion means looking at the ways in which religion, spirituality, belief, etc. are constructed in discourse.

This is not exactly a novel idea in some respects. James A. Beckford, perhaps most explicitly, has talked about his approach to sociology of religion as 'social constructionist' (Beckford 2003). Approaches that explicitly employ discourse analysis are, however, far and few between. Although this might sound odd to people familiar with the work of, for example, von Stuckrad (2003, 2010), Brown (2009) or Wuthnow (2011), I would like to make a distinction between discursive and discourse analytical approaches in the sociology of religion. In my proposed terminology, discursive approaches include what Moberg (2013) calls first- and second-level approaches that discuss meta-theoretical and theoretical issues, but provide little practical advice on doing analysis - the approach that all of the above-mentioned discursive studies take. Discourse analytical approaches focus instead on 'conducting actual discourse analyses using empirical materials (Moberg 2013, emphasis in the original). As I will show below (and as Moberg notes) even 'practical' discourse analysis always includes substantial epistemological and theoretical thinking, so the boundaries are blurred. I do, however, think that the above distinction is useful in mapping previous and future approaches to discourse analysis in the sociology of religion.

The focus of a critical approach is to examine the role of religion in creating and sustaining inequalities. Although Marx's analysis of nineteenth-century social transformations cannot be applied mechanistically to the twenty-first century, the Marxist focus on economic power and inequality is central to CDA, both in terms of analysing discourses of class and the impact of class on discourse in capitalist society. This focus on class and the close interaction of discourse, power and material conditions shares some concerns with Goldstein's (2006) worthwhile attempt at a neo-Marxist 'new paradigm' of critical sociology of religion (see also McCloud 2007). It has, however, little to do with the 'critical theory of religion' inspired by the Frankfurt School that is at the heart of this 'new paradigm'.

In many ways my project is restitutive rather than revolutionary in tone (despite the obvious irony!). I think that the purpose of a genuinely critical sociology of religion is not to be in awe of, say, the effects of consumerism on religion - putatively leading to a whole new understanding of religion (and sociology of religion) - but to go 'back to the basics' and critically analyse how these effects perpetuate or potentially transform inequality. Also, a 'critical agenda' does not mean abandoning the secularisation thesis in favour of a 'postsecular' approach (Davie 2007), but instead encourages the examination of how constructions of secularity and 'post-secularity' affect the social position of individuals, communities and religious traditions. CDA provides an excellent tool for this kind of analysis.

Because of the scarcity of studies employing CDA (for an excellent overview, see Moberg 2013), my approach is suggestive rather than evaluative, that is, the focus is on how CDA could be used, rather than how it has been used. The chapter is divided into four main sections: firstly, I will discuss the concept of discourse and its different meanings. Secondly, I will discuss what being 'critical' means in the context of discourse analysis. Thirdly, I will explore the embeddedness of discourse and how that makes CDA different from other discursive approaches. Finally, I will discuss themes in critical sociology of religion where CDA can provide a powerful tool for analysis and theorisation.

  • [1] A different version of this chapter was published originally in Critical Sociology (published online 4 March 2013, DOI: 10.1177/0896920513477664). Used with permission.
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