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Reinvention: Religion and the Promise of Sociology

An interview with Dr. Linda Woodhead by Jed Elroy Rendor for The Daily Opium

Elroy: We basically want you to share your journey in Sociology, how you started in the field and interesting thigns that has happened to you throughout the…maybe a little info…may I know where your graduated?

Linda: I graduated from Cambridge University

Elroy: In what year?

Linda: 1985. Then did my PhD there. Then I went to Oxford for my first job then I went to Lancaster University in 1992. Been there for a long time.

Elroy: When you shared your paper in Ateneo I think you started in Theology?

Linda: Theology and religious studies.

Elroy: So your thesis is for that field?

Linda: For that field and a little bit of Sociology but not much. Then I taught theology for three years and then I moved to Lancaster and started sociology of religion in the religious studies department.

Elroy: What made you teach or shift to that subject?

Linda: I was more interested in what ordinary religious people believed and practiced than just the elite theologians. I wanted to know what ordinary people…

Elroy: So the paper you presented was actually a product of your interest in sociology.

Linda: The one I presented here?

Elroy: yeah, in Ateneo?

Linda: Yes, I suppose I am interested in what religious people really think, what they really believe, what they really think, not just what theologians say.

Elroy: What is that one thing in sociology that you like best?

Linda:  Well, the study of society. I think it is very important to study societies professionally so we understand ourselves better and we understand…and I think it is quite a revolutionary subject to understand the backgrounds, the concentrations of power, the way we construct things that may otherwise seem timeless and this gives us the possibility of understanding and changing.

 Well, the study of society. I think it is very important to study societies professionally so we understand ourselves better and we understand…and I think it is quite a revolutionary subject to understand the backgrounds, the concentrations of power, the way we construct things that may otherwise seem timeless and this gives us the possibility of understanding and changing.

Elroy: You talked about changes, what do you think is that important change that happened in your life that made you see the value of sociology? Was there any change in your life that “oh”, it’s truly good that I studied sociology, is there any striking moment?

Linda: That’s a good question. I have to think about that one. I suppose I can see how the more done, the more survey work I’ve done, I’ve used a lot of methods but the more I can see how research can make a difference to institutions and organizations so in Britain, the research I have done delves deeply in the church and modernization and change in the church. If you say this is what people really believe, so I think that probably is inspiring. The thing that sociology makes a difference. People listen and understand.

Elroy: Would you share your best experiences in research? What were your best experience in research? What did you enjoy best?

Linda:  Oh. In 2002, there’s a team of us and we took a town in Britain called Kendal, 2 years there doing ethnographic research and interviews and trying to find every kind of religion in the town. That was a nice picture, an intensive locality study and we found lots of new forms of spirituality like new age and yoga. So they were growing very fast and the church was declining and we published a book called spiritual revolution where people first said that this kind of spirituality is important, that was very nice working with people doing that. There were five of us altogether.

Elroy: What was the most exciting finding you got from that?

Linda: Well the most famous finding is that spirituality is growing so there is much more of it than people thought, so  in a small town there are a 123 different providers, offerings, forms of spirituality and but it was… I spent a lot of time in churches as well listening to sermons and sitting through the services of various types so that was good for me.

Elroy: In the short stay you have in the Philippines where you saw different churches, saw different religious practices, what do you think is that something, is there anything in your study abroad that you find resonating here in the local context?

Linda: Lots of things.  It’s a connected world now. There are a lot of things that are familiar but there were some different. So I’ve really enjoyed looking at the Catholic Church here and it’s similar in some ways to the Catholic church I’ve seen elsewhere, so it’s similar, the clergy got quite a strong focus on the reproductive issues, the family values, that is quite clear but it’s also much much more popular and I think it’s much closer to popular piety so in Europe it’s pretty much just the mass but here you have the mass and the novenas and benedictions and the blessing of Holy Water, candles. It’s much more oriented [to] people’s piety. The church manages to make a better connection with it than it does in Europe. It’s much more successful here. Many people are Catholic here. The Catholic Church in Europe is declining very fast.

Elroy: I think you mentioned those fields of interest in the landscape of religion in the Philippines. What do you think would be good areas of research for those who want to be sociologists of religion, or sociologists in general who want to pursue these fields? What do you think is the best things to first pursue to widen the literature. Because I believe there’s only very few literature on the sociology of religion in Philippines?

Linda: In the Philippines, there’s a huge amount to study still. Historical sociology of the Catholic Church is an obvious things but it’s hard to access the Catholic Church. It’s hard to the conference of bishops in the Philippines, it would be hard, that’s why there’s not much studies in any country because it’s hard to access the organizational bodies. They are not very transparent. But survey ordinary Catholics  to know what they think would be a wonderful thing to get a full sociological profile of today. The new practices and the old one and how they…it’s a quite a complex field, [you got] from El Shaddai to very traditional forms in new innovations like, I noticed the prayer candles which [are outside the church] of the Black Nazarene for different purposes. So there’s the old and the new, lots of interesting variations. I think it would be very interesting for the sociologists to have a book that explains more about the church in the Philippines. For Sociology in general I think the discipline is in a bit of a crossroads at the moment, in the post war period it had a, it was very popular in the 50s and the 60s, because that is the post-war reconstruction and the sociologist an expert in society and the era of great rulers who would work with experts to try and remake society at a more rational basis and that dream has gone and disappeared now and sociology needs to reinvent itself if it is still to have social relevance.

For Sociology in general I think the discipline is in a bit of a crossroads at the moment, in the post war period it had a, it was very popular in the 50s and the 60s, because that is the post-war reconstruction and the sociologist an expert in society and the era of great rulers who would work with experts to try and remake society at a more rational basis and that dream has gone and disappeared now and sociology needs to reinvent itself if it is still to have social relevance.

It has to teach people more practical skills because there’s a lot more social research that goes on in a way we are all sociologists now. In the media you use sociological language and techniques and it’s embedded in society and business use marketing research methods. So in a sense it has been very successful because it’s so commonly used but it’s not done properly because it’s not done by people trained in the social science. So if sociologists could train people in business to do better social research and have better links in the marketing departments in the private sector and in business and skill people better in the whole range of areas in society today, in a world there aren’t those big political project, there are those big corporate projects. Sociology needs to rethink its opportunities.

Elroy: that’s a very great possibility. Us sociologists don’t think about that, those practical things.

Linda: Yes, see social change is happening now and we need to understand social values and have an input in improving. And also it’s not just that you can work on those fields, you can use their resources and techniques to resource academics sociology as well.

Elroy: Do you have any words for young sociologists?

Linda: Well what can be more important than studying society? We all live in society. It’s a bad time at the moment, everyone wants to do technical subjects, vocational subjects or make money but we can have very rich societies but that is no good if we don’t understand society and how things are changing in society more generally so there are wonderful opportunities for sociologists starting your age now to reinvent the discipline, make it relevant again to the contemporary world and also more global world. [Some] want it to be very national, just people looking at their own countries but now I think there are much more opportunity to look at the whole society, because of the global link as well as the national so I think it’s a really exciting time and a new generation will take the subject in lots of new directions, that we can’t quite image, the older generation.

Well what can be more important than studying society? We all live in society…there are wonderful opportunities for sociologists starting your age now to reinvent the discipline, make it relevant again to the contemporary world and also more global world.

Elroy: Amazing. I think that says a lot. Thank you. Thank you.

About the Author:

Elroy Rendor doubled his weight in college thanks to the dallop of creme in his daily coffee that aids him in finishing numerous readings. He finished a Bachelor of Arts Major in Development Studies with a Minor in Cultural Heritage and Minor in Filipino Literature from the Ateneo de Manila University. He wants to pilot a Gundam in the near future.