Social scientists—myself included—are often criticized for resorting to some form or other of reductionism in our work. The criticism is sometimes warranted; at other times it simply becomes a facile dismissal that itself ends up being an instance of what it aims to prevent. Reductionism needn’t be dismissed tout court.

I don’t hope to do a great deal of image-management here for a term that’s usually an indicator of a shortcoming, or an expression of derision and contempt for someone’s scholarship. But I’d like at least to begin the conversation about how we can better think about this in our own work.

What I want to examine here is also partly motivated by the response in our workshop to Ron Osborn’s excellent dissertation proposal—in particular, the simultaneous strong praise and criticism that his typology of religious/ideological violence received. It wasn’t just that some of us loved it while others found it problematic; rather, it seemed to me as though many of us did both. There’s something attractive about a neat typology, and also something we seem to loathe about the compartmentalization entailed. What I want to do here is open up some more conversation on this ambivalence.

I think many of us feel such ambivalence not simply about typologies but also about many concepts that are in common use—whether academic or popular. Scholars have repeatedly called for moratoria on terms such as “religion,” “secularization,” “tradition” and “modernity,” and so on (although I haven’t seen enough criticism of terms such as “capitalism” or “globalization,” which seem to me just as problematic). And there is much that rightly worries us about such categories.

One concern is about putting things into stifling boxes—things that are much more nuanced and complicated than the boxes allow them to be. Another is that there are simply too many differences between the things that are put into the same box for them to be considered members of the same category (e.g., all that seems to be encapsulated by the category of “religion”). A key issue underlying such concerns is that we distort what we’re studying by such reduction. I know I used to find this highly worrisome; shouldn’t the task of good scholarship be to nuance things as much as possible? My view on this has tempered over time, and here’s a story about why.

One of the factors that unexpectedly drew me into sociology was an eccentric professor. (You may say there are no other kinds, but consider this: during his tenure as chair of the department he was known to walk around the building holding the end of his computer mouse cable, with the device trailing behind him, and when someone would stop to ask what he was doing, he’d say he was just taking his pet for a walk.) In one of his classes on decision theory, I remember complaining about the reductionism entailed by certain kinds of economic models we were discussing, which were based on ridiculous assumptions about human persons (i.e., the perennial motive of utility-maximization, perfect knowledge of outcomes, etc.).

The professor’s eyes widened: “Oh mais j’adore le réductionisme!”

He then proceeded to draw a stick figure on the board. First a male stick figure, then a female one.

Where might you expect to find these? He asked.


Sure enough. But shouldn’t you protest? What male or female actually looks anything like this? So some clown, in protest of this vile reductionism, decides to paste the face of every man in the world on the bathroom door. And then you have to stand in front of the door searching frantically for your photo before you wet your pants. Or your friend gives you a map for how to get to her place. And annoyed with the skewed scaling of everything—why does that house look bigger than the street, and where are all the indicators for trees and lampposts and McDonalds on the way?—you decide, in the quest for a more adequate representation of the facts, to create a map of 1:1 scale! (I think Borges should probably be credited with this example.)

All right, fair enough. So I can now better appreciate why some such caricatures (Weber’s ideal type for instance) can be useful heuristics. They’re meant to be skewed and distorted and exaggerated; that’s why they’re useful. But there’s certainly a danger. Models that are not supposed to be adequate descriptors of reality in the first place get assumed to be, and can then become, normative impositions. (Excuse my oversimplification here of the performativity thesis.) But I think we should simply be wary of such dangers and develop a better understanding of what these boxes and types and categories are useful for and what they’re not, and of what count as instances of good and helpful usages rather than misuses.

Let me say a word about the latter, because here we have an additional concern: the evaluative and political baggage associated with our categories and concepts. Lena Salaymeh’s argument on the term sharīʿah is apropos here. I think this is a distinct concern, though, and I’d like to return to it, perhaps, in a later post, since I agree with Lena that there are often important political ramifications overlooked in many of our categorizations—for example, when we consider Christianity a “Western” religion in places like India. There is certainly a good argument to be made for abandoning certain categories and terms in scholarly discourse. The use of pejorative terms like “fundamentalist,” for example, is one such problem—or at least it should be, for social scientists, and more so than it seems to be. Another popular example is the “Dark Ages,” and Janet Nelson, among others, convincingly argues why scholars should abandon it:

‘The Dark Ages’ cannot be . . . a useful chronological marker carrying no special pejorative connotations. . . . Value-loaded moralizing terms cast their own shadows; and historians’ terms of art can’t be immunized against popular ‘misuse.’

The issue, however, with terms such as “religion” or “modernity” is somewhat different. Sure, they carry their own baggage and are frequently used pejoratively, but I think good arguments have been made for why we shouldn’t or can’t abolish these terms (see Schilbrack and Riesebrodt on “religion” and Shiner on the tradition-modernity ideal type). Others have made a case for helpful reductionisms. I find these arguments compelling on the whole. I could probably say more about this, and I’d like to offer a typology of my own on religious responses to modernity. But that will have to wait until my next post, since this one has already gone on long enough.