Sociology, secularisation and selection

Posted on February 6, 2011


I’m currently reading Secularization by Steve Bruce. The book is a most fascinating data-driven look at the phenomenon of secularisation in modern societies, especially Europe. Bruce is a long-time collaborator of David Voas, whose work on secularisation I mentioned earlier and who directed me to Bruce’s previous book with the unbeatable title – God is Dead.

While I am really enjoying this book, I have just come across a section that explains some of the shortcomings of traditional sociology. It is to be commended that the author makes the problem clear (page 25):

The first difficulty of explaining the invention or the persistence of religion by the needs it is supposed to serve is that the list of candidate needs is long, and, given the near universality of religion, it is difficult to know how we would establish which items on that list were most effective. Unless we root the idea of needs in some invariant element of human psychologyor in some perpetual problem of social organization – and any such rooting is challenged by the fact of secularization – we have to recognize needs are created by shared cultures. It is what we are raised to believe that shapes our sense of what we (or our societies) require. So we are back to where we started.

Sociology has lacked an unproblematic notion of need and, therefore, an unproblematic notion of function. Whatever it turned to act as the basis for these notions, could then be analysed in other social phenomena and its role, in effect, undermined. The way that was chosen out of this aporia was to focus on mechanisms:

The sociological way out of this tautology is to recognize that belief systems are social products that are socially created, maintained, and transmitted and that their plausibility and persuasiveness depend on social-structural features.

To someone who comes to this material from a background enriched by evolutionary theory, the situation is all too familiar and the basic answers obvious. Needs and functions must be defined relative to adaptation and selection. The only thing that matters, ultimately, is what remains stable over time, functionality being a product of that. This is the point that Mark Bickhard makes in his work but which is also present throughout evolutionary theory, be it dealing with genetics or culture. Everything that sociology faces, including the move to looking at mechanisms is, from this point of view, far from surprising. Basically, the very same issues that lie at the back of the aporia and confusions that plague sociology are explored, organised and related in Tinbergen’s four questions. The result is a powerful set of concepts that provide a range of explanatory tools that sociology appears to lack.