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Creativity in the social sciences

By Peter McDonough


The question of how social scientists choose the topics they write about doesn’t agitate inquiring minds as the puzzle of what drives creative writers and artists does.

Many innovative social scientists take up the same subjects again and again, and their obsessiveness is probably indicative of considerations and compulsions more powerful than increasing ease with a familiar field of inquiry. They are specialists who have fallen in love with their subjects, rather like artists were thought to become impassioned with their models in the days of High Romanticism.

Some topics look trendier, more pressing, and perhaps more fundable on the face of it. This happened during the Vietnam War with revolutions, cast as “agrarian rebellions.” A similarly topical logic stirred up interest in religious movements with the almost wholly unanticipated Iranian revolution and the gradual but no less surprising emergence of religious fundamentalism and its intrusion into politics after the tumultuous sixties. Moreover, embedded in the surprise of such events is an incentive to question the structure of presuppositions that leads observers to overlook impending change in the first place. Challenging conventional wisdom is not a bad way to get the creative juices flowing.

The beautiful and inspiring interior of the Durham Cathedral in England.
The beautiful and inspiring interior of the Durham Cathedral in England.
In the case of religious studies in the social sciences, secularization theory encapsulated this old way of thinking. Boiled down, the idea was that with modernization—urbanization, education, media exposure, and so on—belief in the miraculous would wither away. Reality stridently contradicted this paradigm. However, the claim has started to make a comeback in part because the number of Americans who vouchsafe neither religious affiliation nor belief in God has grown. Admittedly, the depiction of implacable modernization as the advent of sweet reason is something of a straw man, so sophisticated versions of contingent, polymorphic secularization have gained ground.

At the same time there is a respectable case to be made for framing totalitarian mobilization and control as fill-ins for the hope and security once provided by traditional religions. The argument makes some sense for Nazi Germany and perhaps Soviet Russia but less so, or in less transparent ways, for revolutionary China. The larger lesson is that single factor explanations of social phenomena are almost always tendentious by their very nature. Grand theory has become suspect. Sweeping narratives, like super-sized sodas, are bad for you.

In the end there are good reasons why no one loses much sleep over why social scientists working in religion fix on certain topics and what makes some such enterprises more creative than others. Both questions have a self-referential, insider-gossip air to them.

The more important question is what drives religious creativity and spiritual genius itself.  Everyone who has taken Sociology 101 remembers Max Weber’s ideas about the metamorphosis from charismatic to bureaucratic leadership that religious organizations follow. The trajectory goes, comparatively speaking, from moments of madness to sober rationality. Ossification sets in, and it grows on you.

It is remarkable that a century after Weber we have yet to come to terms with the mirror-image question. How do established religions renew themselves? Is it through periodic outbursts of charismatic leadership? Or are other, less cyclical sequences imaginable? How, exactly, can transformative change happen?

This is the question facing Catholicism, in acute form, with the onset of the papacy of Francis—an old hand at institutional maneuvering, among other things.

Peter McDonough has written two books on the Jesuits and others on democratization in Brazil and Spain. His most recent book is The Catholic Labyrinth: Power, Apathy, and a Passion for Reform in the American Church. He lives in Glendale, California.

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Image credit: Photo from Cornell University Library, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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