The Reflexive Turn in Sociology

The term religion is used in a variety of ways in the social sciences and humanities. One way is to define it substantively as beliefs in the supernatural or cosmological order. Other scholars have defined it functionally as the practices that generate social cohesion or provide orientation in life. Both of these are single criterion monothetic definitions.

The problem with a substantive definition of religion is that it excludes a number of things that could be considered to be religious, including nontheistic belief systems and political ideologies such as communism and nationalism. Similarly, functional definitions of religion tend to be so broad that they can include anything, making it hard to measure the growth or impact of the concept.

In the last half century or so, there has been a “reflexive turn” in sociology that seeks to pull the camera back from the symbolic world of religion and show how it was constructed rather than just unproblematically “there.” This approach has led to the development of a variety of analytical tools that attempt to distinguish social structures from their symbolic content.

For example, the three-sided model of the true, beautiful and good is a powerful analytical tool. But to fully understand the nature of religion, it is also necessary to add a fourth side, namely the material culture and physical cultures that support them. This will give the model a more robust and comprehensive structure, allowing us to better understand the range of phenomena that can be considered as religions.