Religious socialization may be broadly described as a process that encompasses the varying dynamics of religious group membership and the patterns of commitment which such membership can engender (Roberts 1984:133–148). It is a process potentially life-long in scope, and until quite recently it was a process thought virtually inevitable in churches and traditional religious groups, as the latter could assume both ongoing commitments in an unchanged society and the gradual incorporation of individuals into the religious group, whether from birth onward (as was the case of Roman Catholics and many mainline Protestants) or from the point of a conversion experience with its strong emotional power (the case of many sects and evangelical traditions). However, as churches and other social groups have been touched by increased levels of social and institutional change (Roof and McKinney 1987), and as cults and newer religious groups have become prominent in American society (Chalfont, Beckley and Palmer 1987:191–220), commitment patterns have become tenuous, and religious socialization has become a subject of specific and—on the part of churches—self-conscious concern (see the discussions by Westerhoff 1974; Groome 1980; Marthaler 1980; Phillibert and O'Connor 1982; Princeton Research Center 1986).
A concern with religious socialization has also been evident in the literature of social science. Since the mid-1970s, social scientists (e.g., McGuire 1981; Roberts 1984; Chalfont, Beckley and Palmer 1987) have refocused the theoretical grounding of religious socialization and directed research efforts to the study of conversion as the illustrative case of this theoretical regrounding. This essay addresses religious socialization from within the context of these concerns. It begins with a discussion of the "problems" of religious socialization; it then identifies key efforts on the part of researchers who have attempted to resolve these problems; and finally, it closes with an overview of selected issues which are implied by, but yet underdeveloped within, the current religious socialization literature.
"Problems" of religious socialization. In the literature of social science, there are at least two problems that have beset the study of religious socialization during the period since the mid and late 1960s. The first problem is what one might term the "absence of boundary questions," or the absence of those questions which set limits on the object of one's study. They include the following: First, what is religious socialization? And second, what is it not? Is it a study of the effects of a process? Or is it the study of the process itself?
These questions are, at first glance, apparently obvious, but as one reviews the early literature on religious socialization, one finds that the latter is a general topic about which much is said, but about which little is actually made clear. Merton Strommen's (1971) extended anthology, Research on Religious Development, illustrates this point. It has 22 literature review entries grouped under the general headings of "religion and research," "personal and religious factors in religious development," "religion, personality and psychological health," "dimensions of religious development," etc., that survey the effects of several presumed "agents" of religious socialization (whether church-based or secular) in their efforts to communicate and/or transmit aspects of religion to individuals who constitute the captive audience for these attempts. There are, however, almost no entries (save that by Greeley and Gockley) that address the religious socialization process per se, or any that attempt to explain how individuals and agents together enter into and engage in the process of people "becoming religious." Rather, one finds the assumed postulates of this process and discussions about its varying and farreaching correlates and effects (see Fairchild and Elkind).
This point is important, for in such an approach one makes two methodological mistakes. First, one equates a study of the process with a study of (presumably) its effects. Second, one lets stand what Long and Hadden (1983:2) describe as the "core theorem of socialization," namely, the "equation of socialization with internalization."
Unless these errors are clearly identified, they generate a tautological framework for both the conceptualization and analysis of the religious socialization process. Further, they can preclude a clear distinction between the study of religious socialization and the study of religiosity, or the various ways in which individuals express their involvement and attachment to religious phenomena, e.g., the knowledge of specific religious teachings, the types and levels of participation individuals may have in religious organizations, their adherence to faith tenets, etc. (See Chalfont, Beckley and Palmer 1987:58–76 for an overview of recent research literature).
The first problem of religious socialization, therefore, is to establish clear boundaries concerning the object of one's study, for without such boundaries, both the process and its effects become confused, and "theory" follows the circular logic of tautology. A second problem is the tendency of researchers to conceptualize by means of analogy, or to adopt selected general assumptions about socialization and then transfer them uncritically to the sphere of religion. This problem is related to the first, for it too identifies socialization with internalization. However, this second problem differs in that it roots the equation in assumptions that stem from functionalist (and/or social system) theory. Put differently, this second problem focuses socialization in terms of its integrating function for social systems, and as assumptions about socialization are applied to the sphere of religion, the internalization equation and its tautological outcomes are again affirmed.
By way of illustration, in the general socialization literature it is typically assumed that socialization entails the internalization of what is external to subjective consciousness (Berger and Luckmann 1966:129–163), since socialization is a life-long process "by which individuals acquire the attitudes and behaviors which are appropriate for [membership] in [their] society" (Taylor, et al. 1987:66; Clausen 1968:5–9). Further, it is assumed that this process is best studied through discipline-specific analyses (i.e., anthropological, sociological and psychological studies), since the phenomena to be internalized include cultural norms and symbols, institutionally based social roles, and those factors that shape the development of individual personality structures (Clausen 1968:18–72).
However, as Di Renzo (1977) points out, neither discipline-specific perspectives nor standard functional assumptions are helpful for understanding the actualities of socialization. Virtually all of the social sciences equate socialization with internalization, and functional approaches do no more than characterize its systemic effect, i.e., system integration. More pointedly, functional perspectives do not define socialization, or rather, when they do, they do so in terms of internalization. Thus, whether the categories of discussion are "socialization" per se (the sociological term of reference) or "culturation" and "enculturation" (the anthropological terms of reference), or lastly "personality development" and/or "maturation" (the psychological terms of reference), they are all terms that assume the transferral of externalities into human consciousness, or the equation of socialization with internalization. Thus, as this mechanism of system integration is detailed, it is done via the assumption "of a relatively simple material object [internalization] with varied formal objects [discipline specific terms of reference]" (DiRenzo 1977:265).
Di Renzo dubs this strategy a "simplistic labeling of [one's] appropriate disciplinary heritage" (1977:264) and identifies it as the "crux" of many conceptual issues attached to contemporary socialization theory. Alternatively, the functional/discipline-specific approach is an orientation that clouds the understanding of religious socialization, as again, the socialization-internalization equation is affirmed, and a tautological framework generated.
One additional assumption from the general literature also bears mention. This assumption is the distinction between primary and secondary socialization or the idea that socialization occurs in two stages: primary socialization, which begins at birth and continues through early childhood, and secondary socialization, which is "role specific" and picks up at the close of primary socialization and continues throughout life (Berger and Luckmann 1966:163–173)
While this assumption is valid insofar as socialization does occur throughout the life cycle (Brim 1966; Dion 1985), it is not particularly helpful, at least as it presently stands, for it implies that secondary socialization is either only role-specific learning, or that learning is borne only of primary socialization experiences. In short, this two-stage approach lends itself to a deterministic or "oversocialized" (Wrong 1961) approach to human, social learning. Further, it is contradicted by the research literature on "adult socialization" and the findings of symbolic interactionists (Stryker and Statham 1985), which suggest that every experience is a socialization experience and that new learning, or learning unrelated to primary socialization, can and apparently does take place (Stryker and Statham 1985).
The second problem of religious socialization, therefore, is the tendency to theorize by analogy or the tendency to adopt general assumptions about socialization as if they could apply (without qualification) to the sphere of religion. Its main defect is its enhancement of the socialization-internalization equation and the tautological framework that this equation engenders. This problem, in conjunction with religious socialization's lack of clear boundaries, leads inevitably to the following questions: What actually is entailed in the study of religious socialization, and how might the latter be studied?
The answers are obvious. The study of religious socialization entails the study of a process (rather than the presumption of its outcomes), and the study of this process through categories that permit a descriptive account of how individuals enter into and engage in the process of becoming religious. Further, if this is the task that constitutes the study of religious socialization, then research efforts need to be directed to a context that permits the fulfillment of these criteria.
The study of religious conversion affords the occasion to meet these criteria, and its articulation through the framework of symbolic interactionism meets to the request of describing the process of religious socialization apart from its religion specific "contents" or outcomes, i.e., expressions of religiosity. In sociological terms this is the study of religious affiliation and disaffiliation or the study of the dynamics encompassed in religious group membership and the patterns of commitment that they can engender.
Conversion and religious socialization. In the study of religious socialization, it is helpful to begin with a discussion of two seemingly disparate topics: cult recruitment and symbolic interaction theory. The literature on cult recruitment stems largely from research by John Lofland (1977) who, with Rodney Stark and others (Lofland and Stark 1977; Lofland and Skonovd 1981), has presented a seven-step description of "conversion," or recruitment to cult membership. The model is premised upon the conditions of both psychological "tension" and "religious seekership" (i.e., an inclination to solve such problems from a religious rather than non-religious perspective), and while its particulars need not be spelled out here (see Roberts 1984:148–156), two emphases within it merit mention. First, in spite of the tension-based predisposition that characterizes it, the model indicates clearly that recruitment to new religious groups is based on extensive cult member and potential new member interaction and the gradual movement of an individual from diffuse to close-knit (new) group associations. Second, the model indicates that such movement involves a general movement away from competing groups and toward the new group as a primary reference group or context for identity.
These emphases are important, for although the Lofland model has been criticized in terms of its initial stages and the assumption of a tension-based experience that generates the process (Snow and Phillips 1980; cf. Roberts 1984:153–156), it has occasioned a re-thinking of the classical imagery attached to religious conversion. Several sources are important in this vein. First is the Hoge and Roozen (1979:48–49) discussion of "factors affecting church commitment," which highlights the difficulty of testing deprivation-based theories in general and conversion deprivation-based theories in particular.
Second, as Snow and Machalek (1984) point out, the methodological difficulties in conversion research are only one aspect of the problem. Of equal importance is the conceptualization of conversion. It has been described generally within the literature, as either "radical personal change … the core of all conceptions of conversion, whether theological or social scientific" or a "change in one's universe of discourse." The latter is the framework that informs Snow and Machalek's own research (1983), and for them, it suggests something that "concerns not only a change in values, beliefs, and identities, but more fundamentally and significantly … the displacement of one universe of discourse by another or the ascendance of a formerly peripheral universe of discourse to the status of a primary authority" (Snow and Machalek 1984:170–171).
Third is James Richardson's (1985) survey of recent conversion research literature, which he characterizes as caught in the midst of a paradigm conflict. Although his own research on conversion is extensive (Richardson 1978; 1980; 1985), it is his 1985 discussion that proves to be most compelling. It attempts to dispel the so-called passive qualities view assumed in religious conversion, so that a more activist and interactive approach to both conversion and the activity of potential converts may be developed.
Richardson begins his discussion with a summary of the major characteristics that attach to the "old paradigm" for conversion research, i.e., the experience of Paul on the road to Damascus. These characteristics are generally well known. First, the experience of conversion is typically assumed to be sudden, dramatic, and emotional, and often, irrational in quality. Second, it is an event that is perceived as external to the recipient. Third, it is both individualized and psychologized in that it is an event thought to change one's life completely. Fourth, this change is (in Richardson's words) "static" and "deterministic," as the event involves a total break with one's past—or more particularly, the negation of one's old self into a new self. Fifth, because this event was (and is) perceived from within the context of the one true church (i.e., Christianity), it is an event that is a "once-ina-lifetime experience", or an experience never to be repeated and, of ever-greater significance, never needing to be repeated. Finally, because Paul's experience entailed an apparent change in his own belief structure, conversion was defined in cognitive terms such that "behaviors follow beliefs" and not beliefs behaviors.
It is against this type of thinking that Richardson marshals his argument for the adoption of a more activist and interactive perception of conversion, since, on the one hand, the interactive model presented initially by Lofland has had significant and expanding confirmation without reference to a tension and/or problem-solving basis (cf. literature cited by Richardson: Pilarzyk 1969; Gerlach and Hine 1979; Bromley and Shupe 1979) and, on the other hand, theoretical frameworks such as that of symbolic interaction and humanistic sociology (e.g., the sociology of knowledge) suggest an alternative context for interpreting conversion.
In particular, Richardson draws attention to the concept of alternation, as developed by Berger and Luckmann (1966) and Travisano (1970). Alternation implies a less definitive and externally directed change of identity and a more initiative and interactive role of converts with potentially new reference groups. This view is based upon Meadian social psychology (Blumer 1969; Hewitt 1983), and especially Mead's notion of role-taking and self-other interaction as the bases of identity development.
According to Mead, individuals develop through interaction with others and in the light of mutually constructed symbols or—to borrow from Berger and Luckmann (1966:34–46)—mutually agreed upon significations of human behavior. These significations are both behavioral and linguistic, and according to Mead, they are the media through which interaction takes place. Further, they are the bases of his concept of role taking, for as both gestures and linguistic significations merge, identifiable role structures become obvious, and individuals can opt to "take on the role" of others or engage in imaginative imitation of these persons. Children engaged in "let's pretend" play are Mead's illustration of this point, for as children imagine themselves as others, whether doctor, "mommy" or "daddy," they not only see these others as distinct from themselves, but they also anticipate the behavior of these others and enact it. Thus as children play, they takes on the roles of others and to a greater or lesser extent, appropriate them for their own purposes.
Participation in structured games is a second illustration that Mead uses to unfold his notion of role taking, for in contrast to play (or imitative behavior), games come replete with rules, differentially structured roles, and more often than not, competition. Thus, as the child enters into a game, she or he must anticipate not only multiple role relations, but also their sequenced and potentially patterned relationships. To make the point concretely, Mead cites team play in baseball: it is interactive, it involves the capacity to "take on the role" of many others simultaneously, and it is a game that must be played in terms of rules, or behavioral norms that transcend the identities of individual players.
Mead's concept of role taking is important, for while it acknowledges the eventual possibility of routinized or automatic role enactment, it nonetheless recognizes that role learning is a dynamic and interactionally based negotiation, or a phenomenon that involves common participation by all engaged parties. His notion of the self as a social process involving both an "I" and a "Me" further expands this point.
As already indicated, the self develops through interaction with others through the process of role taking. However, this self is not an undifferentiated stream of consciousness. Rather it is a process of engagement with others, wherein the individual is self-reflective, or able to distinguish present consciousness from past experience. Put differently, as the process called "self" develops, it does so as an "I" (the active and responsive dimension of self) in dialogue with several "Me's" (past experience or the many composites of previous "I's" together with society's responses to them). Put in yet another way, the self is an ongoing process that interprets both others and the responses of others to itself. It is a process that organizes these responses internally and then knows them as recognizable realities, that is, as "Me's".
It is precisely these Meadian emphases on role taking and the social basis of identity that undergird Richardson's discussion of conversion. Richardson (1985:171) notes that a symbolic interactionist perspective permits the depiction of conversion as a series of alternations within and among religious groups, or as a career-like phenomenon involving the serial and periodic construction of one's religious-social self. More graphically, the symbolic interaction framework permits the depiction of conversion as a "conversion career" (Richardson 1980;1984), or a series of identity adaptations grounded in the "I-Me" dialectic of role-taking vis-à-vis "old and new" religious groups. Thus for Richardson, symbolic interactionism permits a better image of conversion because it suggests that conversion involves alternation rather than the once in a life-time event of the Pauline paradigm; and it permits a more accurate description of conversion because it illumines the interaction of individuals with identity defining roles and significations in a manner that exhibits the partial control that potential converts appear to have (and retain) over their old and new religious identities. Thus it challenges the external assumptions of the traditional paradigm, with its character of sudden dramatic event, of individualized and "deterministic" qualities, and of distinctive cognitive bias. These emphases are all implicit in the symbolic interaction framework that underlies the literature cited by Richardson, and hence his advocacy of the activist rather than passive paradigm for conversion research.
Wider implications. There are three sets of wider implications that follow from this understanding of religious socialization as a process that involves the dynamics of religious group membership and the patterns of commitment that such membership can engender: those concerning the "activist" paradigm itself; those concerning important differences between cults and mainline churches; and finally, those concerning the sociology of religious commitment, about which the literature is relatively silent.
First, as regards the development of an activist or interactive paradigm for the study of conversion (and by extension religious socialization), Richardson is correct in noting that conversion research is presently in a state of paradigm conflict because active and passive images are both supported in varying degrees by past and present literature (see Rambo 1982 which contains a detailed conversion bibliography through 1981). However, the weight of the evidence seems to be in favor of Richardson's activist paradigm. The Lofland research points to this as does the work of Snow and Machalek, who suggest that conversion studies should focus on the analysis of "rhetorical indicators" such as "biographic reconstruction, adoption of a master attribution scheme, suspension of analogical reasoning and the embracement of the convert role" (Snow and Machalek 1984:173ff.). Further, as Chalfont, Beckley and Palmer (1987:44) indicate, the current cult recruitment/conversion literature (including Richardson's own) seems to suggest that conversion (however it is imaged) is but one type of religious socialization. In their judgment, religious socialization may involve not only "conversion," but "a series of affiliations and disaffiliations," or "alternations" in Richardson's terms. Indeed, Chalfont, Beckly and Palmer take Richardson's position as a given. This is important, for it underscores the potentially life-long and variegated character of religious socialization.
If such alternations are endemic to the life-long course of religious socialization, then it would appear that the study of religious socialization should be undertaken concomitantly with the study of religious and social change, since the unidirectional assumptions of traditional (and often tautological) frameworks have less bearing than one might imagine. If religious socialization is based instead on interactive and processually based interpretive processes, then dynamic rather than static conceptual frameworks need specification, and research needs to be directed to the interplay between organizational, confessional, and locally based reference groups, or what sociologically are church politics, historically normative frameworks (including "dogmas" and worship), and ethnic or otherwise configured parish and/or congregational memberships.
Second, although cults and churches differ significantly, e.g., the former generally access individuals who are older and frequently in marginal contexts, whereas churches frequently begin socialization in early childhood and within established class contexts, they are, nonetheless, both groups that seek to engage persons in interpretive interaction vis-à-vis their respective spheres. Thus, whether one is speaking about evangelization (a mainline analog to cult recruitment) or recruitment by membership birth, one is still addressing religious socialization vis-à-vis the "institutional," "meaning," and "reference group" factors (Roberts 1984:325–372) that typify church based socialization efforts and/or contexts, or the interplay of both religious and social demographics that underlie the significations attached to these spheres.
It is this latter emphasis that is underdeveloped within the literature, but the seeds of its future development are present within the notion of the activist paradigm, for change and the presence of overlapping social worlds are inherent to the paradigm. In particular, in a mobile, information based and pluralistic society, it is necessary to consider the social and demographic bases of mainline churches and denominations, and by way of specifics, their overlap with traditional and modified family and educational structures, such ascribed characteristics as age, race, and gender, achieved characteristics such as occupational and political networks (with their associated ethics and worldviews), and a host of personal psychological variables, including perceived values of success, failure, self-image, power, responsibilities to others and the like. In short, it is necessary to consider the full range of those social-organizational variables that undergird the mainline churches and their structures, for it is these latter variables that provide the warp and woof of activist and interactive spheres.
This last consideration brings us to the subject of commitment, the third of the wider implications for religious socialization, but one largely unaddressed by the cult recruitment/conversion literature, save the assumption that commitment entails conformity to group norms or acquiescence to the eventuality of routinized role behavior and their associated cognitive enclaves (Berger 1967).
In the general literature on religious socialization, the subject of commitment has largely been underdeveloped, save for isolated studies that address commitment in particular institutional frameworks, such as religiously affiliated schools (Greeley and Rossi 1966; Greeley and Gockel 1971) or institutions involving socialization to religious professions (Schoenherr and Greeley 1974; Potvin 1976). One explanation for this is that as Kanter (1968; 1972) has noted, commitment is multidimensional. That is to say, it involves (at least) three different dimensions, i.e., "instrumental" (or organizational) commitment, "affective" commitment (or commitment to group members), and "moral" commitment (ideational or ideological commitment). Extended theoretical work is needed, however, if the study of commitment is be advanced, for although Kanter's work details these three types of commitment and the mechanisms that seem to facilitate them, it is based on the study of utopian (or closed) communities and not denominational or open, voluntary associations. Rather, for an understanding of commitment in these spheres, attention must be directed (again) to the situationally specific bases of religion (viz., the variables of social organization) and their interplay with local church reference groups, large-scale church bureaucratic structures, and denominationally specific theological emphases (i.e., confessional ideations).
Finally, if the study of commitment is to be undertaken independently (but not completely apart from) the study of religiosity, it will be necessary to connect the activist paradigm to the concerns of socialization within non-religious spheres, since the carrying over of religious values—and particularly service to those in need—into spheres not formally defined as religious is still the goal of churches and traditional religious associations.
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