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Monday, June 2, 2014

Networks and Religion: Ties that Loose

1. Religious ideas and practices can spread across religious networks. A key assumption of social network analysis is that ties function as conduits for the spread of information and other material and nonmaterial resources. Perhaps, the best known study of this is Mark Granovetter's (1973, 1974) study of how people find jobs, a study that Malcolm Gladwell discusses at length in his book, "The Tipping Point." Granovetter discovered that people were far more likely to have used personal contacts in finding their present job, and most of these contacts were what Granovetter called "weak ties," people whom they saw occasionally or rarely. This led Granovetter to conclude that when it comes to finding jobs, our weak ties are often more useful than our strong ties because our weak ties (i.e., our acquaintances) are less likely to be socially involved with one another than are our strong ties (i.e., our close friends).

Imagine the pattern of social ties suggested by this argument (see the graph below) and take any individual in the network. He or she will most likely have a collection of close friends, most of whom know one another. This same individual will also probably have a collection of acquaintances, few of whom know one another. But these acquaintances, in turn, are likely to be embedded in tightly knit networks of their own. According to Granovetter, weak ties are important because they form the bridges that tie clusters of people together. In fact, if it were not for these weak ties, these clusters would not be connected at all. This suggests that whatever is diffused will reach more people and travel a greater social distance if it passes through weak rather than strong ties.

Not surprisingly, the spread of ideas and practices occurs across religious networks. For instance, the archeologist Anna Collar notes that prior to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE Diaspora Jews did not overtly advertise their culture and identity:
Jews were given pagan names, Jewish rulers donated to pagan buildings, and Gentiles were interested in Jewish cult. Because Jerusalem was the centre of Judaism in certain absolute and specific religious and fiscal terms, Judaism, with a book and the Temple at its heart, was understood by Jews to be fully formed. Jews engaged with and responded to the circumstances of their life in the Diaspora without losing this sense of attachment to the Jerusalem temple (Collar 2013:229).
This all changed after the Temple's destruction. Collar notes that epigraphy (i.e., the study of inscriptions) indicates that after the Temple's destruction there was a "widespread dissemination and adoption of explicitly Jewish names, symbols, and language" through the ethnic network of the Jewish Diaspora across the Mediterranean world. 
The indicators found on Jewish monuments that reflect an increased awareness of a common Jewish practice, history, and behaviour include specifically Jewish symbols as referents to a universalized ritual and the religious calendar, and the use of Hebrew as a marker of education and a revived knowledge of the sacred texts, Torah, Jewish Law, and Jewish history. In addition, the increasing use of specifically Jewish name forms provides a subtle indication of the universal engendering of a more strongly defined Jewish identity, matched by the trend during the 3rd–4th centuries ad for individuals to define themselves as ‘Jews’ or, more often, as ‘Hebrews’ (Collar 2013:231).
She, however, argues this occurred through strong, rather than weak, ties:
I argue that this should be interpreted as evidence that the new religious authorities in Palestine used the highly influential strong-tie ‘familial’ connections of the ethnic network of the Diaspora to transmit the religious and social discipline of rabbinic Judaism (Collar 2013:230).
Diffusion doesn't occur just between individuals. It also occurs between organizations. As Paul DiMaggio and Woody Powell (1983) and John Meyer and Brian Rowan (1977) have noted, organizations that interact with one another tend to become more like one another over time. That is, the policies and practices of one organization will often diffuse to other organizations with which they have ties.

For example, Mark Chaves (1996) found that Christian denominations that were not currently ordaining women as pastors and priests but had ties to denominations that did were 14 times more likely to start ordaining women than were denominations that did not have such ties. And Luke Matthews and his colleagues (2013) studied how (and if) theological beliefs and practices diffused among denominations associated with the Radical Reformation (primarily Anabaptists). They found that most beliefs diffused between denominations that had ties with one another (specifically, if leaders of the different denominations knew one another). The one notable exception? Violent theologies (ideologies). These tended to be inherited from parent congregations (which, of course, is a type of tie as well).

2. Religious networks help facilitate volunteerism, civic engagement, and political activism. There is overwhelming empirical evidence that indicates that when it comes to charity and volunteering, people of faith contribute far more of their time and money than do their secular counterparts. To be sure, while a large part of this is donated to religious institutions (e.g., churches, synagogues, Habitat for Humanity), people of faith also contribute to secular institutions. In fact, they do so at rates higher than their secular counterparts. This is not to say that nonbelievers don't contribute to secular (and nonsecular) institutions. They do. It's just that, on average, people of faith contribute and volunteer more.

Why this is so is a matter of debate. We do know that people of faith who participate in church activities, attend church regularly, enjoy higher levels of education and income, and those who with ties to others are more likely to volunteer than are others (Park and Smith 2001).

Social ties function in interesting but perhaps unsurprising ways. When volunteering for a church program, then ties to other church members matter, but for volunteering in general, it is ties to neighbors that matter.  Some argue that social networks are all that matter, while one's religious beliefs don't.
Social networks, rather than beliefs, dominate as the mechanism leading to volunteering and it is the social networks formed within congregations that make congregation members more likely to volunteer (Becker and Dhingra 2001:329).
The problem with such an assertion is that religious beliefs help drive the nature of religious networks. As I noted above, the social networks of theologically conservative religious groups tend to be denser than those of theologically liberal groups, and how these networks are structured almost certainly affects the frequency with which people of faith volunteer. Moreover, because seculars, by definition, do not join religious groups, they lack the social ties (or at least have fewer of them) that would otherwise link them to volunteer opportunities, which in turn helps explain why they volunteer their time and money at lower rates than do people of faith.


  • Becker, Penny E., and Pawan H. Dhingra. 2001. "Religious Involvement and Volunteering: Implications for Civil Society." Sociology of Religion 62(3):315-35.
  • Chaves, Mark. 1996. "Ordaining Women: The Diffusion of an Organizational Innovation." American Journal of Sociology 101(4):840-73.
  • Collar, Anna. 2013. "Re-thinking Jewish Ethnicity through Social Network Analysis." Pp. 223-45 in Network Analysis in Archeology: New Approaches to Regional Interaction, edited by Carl Knappett. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • DiMaggio, Paul J., and Walter W. Powell. 1983. "The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields." American Sociological Review 48(2):147-60.
  • Granovetter, Mark. 1973. "The Strength of Weak Ties." American Journal of Sociology 73(6):1360-80.
  • Granovetter, Mark. 1974. Getting a Job. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Meyer, John W., and Brian Rowan. 1977. "Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony." American Journal of Sociology 83(2):340-63.
  • Matthews, Luke J., Jeffrey Edmonds, Wesley Wildman, and Charles Nunn. 2013. "Cultural Inheritance or Cultural Diffusion of Religious Violence? A Quantitative Case Study of the Radical Reformation." Religion, Brain & Behavior 3(1):3-15.
  • Park, Jerry Z., and Christian S. Smith. 2000. ""To Whom Much Has Been Given...": Religious Capital and Community Volunteerism Among Churchgoing Protestants." Journal For the Scientific Study of Religion 39(3):272-86.

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