Chapter 5: Weberian Themes

Rediscovering the Sacred: Perspectives on Religion in Contemporary Society
by Robert Wuthnow

Chapter 5: Weberian Themes

The theoretical tradition initiated by Max Weber nearly a century ago has remained a popular perspective from which to examine religion, ideology, and, in general, the processes of change in these cultural systems. The Weberian perspective gives credence to the importance of ideas in social life. It poses specific arguments about rationalization, charisma, political legitimacy, and religious ethics. It offers a methodological orientation that emphasizes subjective meanings. In disagreeing with Marx, Weber countered what in his view was a one-sided materialism with a more complex model in which ideas could also exercise causal influence. In contemporary sociology, Weber has often been a source of inspiration for interpretive, ethnographic, and historical approaches to religion advanced in opposition to narrowly reductionistic, positivistic research designs.

Yet certain limitations have been evident in the Weberian tradition. The manner in which religion and ideology are conceptualized has resulted in what sometimes appears to be an overly subjective view of their nature and functioning. In the extreme, they become moods and motivations operating at the level of internalized values instead of observable features of discourse, language, or institutions. Supporters of the Weberian perspective have countered that this is, indeed, an extreme view, based more on a narrow reading of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism than on an understanding of Weber’s more extended and mature works, especially Economy and Society. Yet even these works have been criticized on the same grounds.

Causal statements sometimes revolve around notions of "elective affinities" among subsets of otherwise highly complex ideological systems. Why particular ideas become operative in particular situations remains unexplained. Moreover, comparisons with other contexts cast doubt on whether these affinities are universal. In addition, the social conditions bringing about changes in ideas are often left unspecified or are attributed too readily to notions about the interests of particular status groups.

Critics charge that Weber’s arguments go beyond notions of elective affinity in emphasizing the role of status groups as carriers of new ideas, but the intervening mechanisms relating particular ideas to particular status groups still leave much to be explained. Peasants, for example, are said to believe in God because they see supernatural acts in nature; soldiers are said to believe in fate because they risk an early death. But these explanations focus on psychological factors rather than providing insight into the institutional contexts in which ideas are actually produced, paid for, brought into contact with an interested audience, enacted in collective rituals, used to mobilize resources against competing ideologies, and embedded in social arrangements.

These limitations have been particularly evident in Weberian treatments of English and American Puritanism. Inspired by Weber’s thesis concerning the relations between inner-worldly ascetic religious values and the spirit of capitalism, numerous inquiries have examined the ideological components of Puritanism, its social origins, and its consequences. This body of literature has generated some useful hypotheses about the effects of Puritanism on the rise of science, its legitimation of revolutionary dissent, and the qualities of religious rationality, to mention only a few of the themes that have been pursued. Beyond these specific historical questions, this literature has also stood as an example of how one might use the Weberian tradition to derive generalizable propositions about the nature of religious change. Scholars have looked to it for inspiration in thinking about such questions as the origins of new theological ideas, the relations between changing religious views and changing views of the state, and the religious legitimation of secular knowledge.

But this body of literature also remains the subject of much controversy. Whether Puritanism as ideology had significant independent effects on related social developments remains in dispute, as do matters associated with its content and the conditions facilitating its appeal to particular groups. The issue of Puritanism casts into sharp relief all the difficulties of relating the sacred to its social environment — difficulties of measurement, difficulties of accounting for change, and difficulties of establishing relationships between complex systems of ideas.

Much of the controversy surrounding Weberian arguments about Puritanism has focused on substantive issues. For instance, historical inquiries have variously identified the radically uncertain Puritan soteriology, the Puritan doctrine of the elect, and the implicit Puritan humanitarianism as its key ideology. Others have asked whether Puritanism was truly a seventeenth-century innovation or whether its roots extended not only to the magisterial Reformation but also to the highly rationalized religious concepts of the Middle Ages. Still others have debated the specific involvement of Puritans in such developments as the early scientific academies or the cadres that advanced ideas about civil insurrection.

So numerous have these studies been that scholars have on occasion expressed doubt about the likelihood of much of value coming from further work of this type. Interest in the Weberian thesis, however, appears to remain strong in large part because, for all the historical particularity of Puritanism, it constituted one of the most formative episodes in our own nation’s history and the history of the modern West. Interest in the Weberian study of Puritanism also remains strong because of the theoretical implications of Weber’s work for understanding the sacred in our own time.

Recently, several important studies have appeared that, in addition to contributing historical evidence on Puritanism, also offer some interesting new ways of thinking about the theoretical assumptions concerning religion and ideology in the Weberian tradition. The theoretical roots of these studies tap directly into Weberian arguments, but the studies provide insights about religion and ideology that should be of value well beyond the Weberian school itself.

The primary contribution of these studies is to suggest some of the specific social processes that intervene between general social or cultural conditions and the appearance of an ideology. They suggest, in different ways, that ideologies are not related to the social environment through some diffuse mechanism such as affinity, legitimation, or isomorphism but are produced in specific institutional contexts by organizations, movements, and agents that draw resources from the environment and take specific actions that facilitate or impede the adoption of particular ideologies. Given this, these studies are clearly relevant to current debates inspired by traditions other than Weber’s as well — for example, neo-Marxist discussions of the state and ideology and poststructuralist treatments of cultural production.

The Heavenly Contract

David Zaret’s The Heavenly Contract is an effort to examine in greater detail the origins of one doctrine in English Puritanism that Weber thought particularly significant in the legitimation of rational industrial capitalism — the idea of a covenant between the believer and God.1 "Covenant theology," as it was called, made it possible for individuals to gain evidence of their divine election by cultivating a disciplined life of pious devotion and godly deeds. Thus, it tempered the earlier predestinarian emphases of Calvinism by introducing notions of contract, exchange, and reciprocity into the relations between God and the individual.

It was this doctrine that Weber emphasized in arguing that the inherent uncertainties in Calvinist theodicies had been modified in Puritanism to the point that the fruits of disciplined activity in an ascetic calling could be taken as a sign of one’s salvation. Zaret argues that the importance of this theological development for the Weberian treatment of religion and capitalism suggests a need for an adequate account of its origins.

In contrast to previous accounts that focused on theological antecedents of covenant theology, Zaret’s study offers a sociological approach that draws inspiration from recent attempts to rewrite social history from a more popular, bottom-up perspective. He focuses mainly on the changing relations between laity and clergy and the ways in which religious ideas were produced.

The explanatory model for The Heavenly Contract starts with an assertion of the importance of social-structural, technical, and cultural changes in English society. These changes produced an active laity more interested in taking part in popular dissent movements. Among these changes, crucial developments included the penetration of market forces into the countryside, where the vast majority of the population still lived; the appearance of a popular press and the growth of literacy; and a set of ideas conducive to popular dissent, such as anticlericalism and a more rationalized orientation toward material and spiritual life.

Then, on the clergy side, the model focuses on the manner in which preachers responded to and attempted to seize control of the emerging popular dissent. Ideas about the sanctity of conscience and the importance of godly edification were emphasized and subtly modified by clergy as they attempted to secure popular submission to the secular authorities, regain ecclesiastical control of the laity, forge alliances with the state, and secure patronage from the aristocracy.

With these background characteristics of the laity and clergy considered as preconditions of religious change, the model shifts to particular movements that developed as competing ways of organizing the new relations between laity and clergy. Competition among three specific groups — lay Puritans, Separatists, and radical heretics — seems to have been most important. Zaret argues that the controversies among these groups hinged chiefly on the ambiguous position in which clergy found themselves. On the one hand, they served as ordained ministers subject to the authority of the church; on the other hand, they played an increasingly active role as leaders of a popular movement. In short, clergy were caught between the expectations of their ecclesiastical superiors and a restive lay following. It was in this context that covenant theology emerged.

Clergy were hard-pressed to retain their control over the lay movement and often found themselves advancing doctrinal compromises with the more extreme demands of the laity or, in response to organizational pressures, advancing tentative solutions that turned out to have unintended consequences. Covenant theology developed from a mixture of intellectual precedents that were articulated and modified in response to organizational pressures. It drew heavily on contractarian ideas concerning the believer’s initiative in responding to divine election. Such practices as reading the Bible, hearing sermons, practicing family worship, and examining one’s spiritual life all came to be emphasized as evidences of divine election.

These elements of covenant theology not only solved some of the immediate dilemmas of church polity that the clergy faced but also made sense to laypersons because of their similarity to contractarian ideas gaining prominence in the world of finance and trade. Ultimately, therefore, the affinities between Puritan ideas and economic ideas that Weber identified are important features of the argument, but Zaret specifies in greater detail than Weber had the conditions under which these ideas came together.

Zaret’s study is based on an extensive reexamination of sermons, lay memoirs, and historical studies of ecclesiastical debates and broader social conditions. Although it is limited to the English case, and therefore does not benefit from the broader kinds of comparison Weber made, it utilizes a rich set of sociological conceptions and pieces them together to form a detailed process model involving interactions among social-structural, cultural, organizational, and interpersonal factors.

The virtue of Zaret’s approach is that it demonstrates the relevance of broad social conditions as effects on religious ideas, but instead of pinning these effects on hidden psychological states or vague generalities about interests and legitimation, it traces the factors actually involved in the specific contexts in which ideas were produced, modified, and disseminated. One comes away with the feeling that a plausible set of connections between social conditions and religious change has been identified.

Piety and Politics

Mary Fulbrook’s comparative study of Puritanism and Pietism in England, Wurttemberg, and Prussia also contributes to the current reassessment of Weber’s ideas.2 Asking why religious ideas favored absolutism in Prussia in contrast to a politically passive orientation in Wurttemberg and an anti-absolutist attitude in England, Fulbrook is led to examine the interaction between religious ideas and the social contexts in which they take shape. Like Zaret, she concludes that ideological outcomes cannot be explained simply on the basis of theological antecedents. Indeed, she fails to find support for a Weberian style argument that ideas bear an elective affinity with the particular social, economic, or political structures they help to legitimate. Nor does she find any support for a straightforward effect of social class or status groups on ideologies. She is forced, like Zaret, to examine religious ideologies within a broader, more complex pattern of "sociopolitical environments."

 She observes that Puritanism in seventeenth-century England and Pietism in eighteenth-century Wurttemberg and Prussia were quite similar in general theological orientation. All three emphasized personal purity and conversion, a life of diligence in attending to the scriptures, a clear vision of God’s kingdom becoming a moral community on earth, and an active inner-worldly approach to social improvement and moral asceticism. Yet the three varied dramatically in the specific attitudes that developed toward absolutist government. Why?

Her argument suggests that general ideas are transformed into specific political ideologies by the social obstacles that religious communities confront in pursuing their goals. She recognizes that in the cases under consideration, religious sentiments were embedded largely within the institutional context of a state church. The opportunities for religious reform movements to achieve their goals were largely determined, therefore, by the relations present among the state, state church, and other powerful interest groups.

English Puritanism developed an anti-absolutist ideology because it found a relatively strong popular base among the laity but was opposed by the state church, which was closely linked to the king who gave it patronage in return for ideological support. Pietism in Wurttemberg took a politically passive turn because it was largely tolerated by the state church, which was somewhat independent of the king and capable through the involvement of the aristocracy of incorporating new ideas about the nature of the polity. In short, Pietism became anti-absolutist but not revolutionary because mechanisms were available for gaining its ends peacefully. Prussian Pietism, in contrast, developed in the context of a feudal aristocracy that gave it a relatively weak economic base. Indeed, Prussian Pietists found their greatest support from the centralizing state itself, which was struggling to gain control over the feudal aristocracy; so Pietism gradually took on political attitudes that supported absolutism.

Fulbrook’s study does not have the nuanced series of variables linking social conditions and religious ideologies that Zaret’s does. But she is able to advance a highly parsimonious model for the differences she seeks to explain. Rather complex sets of historical variables are summarized in the relations among state church, state, and aristocracy, and these relations then determine where a religious reform movement is likely to turn for support, which becomes a decisive factor in shaping the movement’s views of the state.

Wallington’s World

Wallington’s World, by historian Paul Seaver, represents a contribution to the Weberian legacy of a quite different sort.3 Nehemiah Wallington was a Puritan artisan who lived in London from 1598 until his death in 1658. Seaver’s study is based on Wallington’s extensive memoirs, religious reflections, and letters — some 20,000 pages in all, of which 2,600 survived. Seaver uses these materials to develop an intensive portrait of the mental outlook typified by this Puritan layman.

The topics covered range over some of the terrain most frequently trod by Weberian scholars: the doctrine of the calling, questions of divine election, evidences of salvation, attitudes toward money, sexual and family values, standards of morality. Seaver denies that Wallington can be regarded as a typical Puritan artisan (the fact that he wrote so much was itself unusual), but he presents enough material in addition to that of Wallington — from Puritan sermons and other autobiographies — that the reader is likely to come away feeling that he or she has learned something about Puritans in general.

In contrast to Zaret’s and Fulbrook’s studies, Seaver’s pays little attention to the broader social conditions that may have shaped Puritan ideology. The value of his study lies mainly in its portrayal of the ideology itself. If we agree with Zaret’s claim that popular ideology among the laity has been a neglected feature of Puritanism, then Wallington’s memoirs take on added significance: they give us a glimpse beyond the reconstructed categories that Weber and others have applied to Puritanism. Religious ideology ceases momentarily to be a set of ideal types and becomes actual discourse. We are able to see the words and categories that Puritans actually used to create their sense of reality. This, I believe, is of particular value for rethinking some of Weber’s ideas about social-psychological factors in religion.

Religion and Rebellion

In an essay in Bruce Lincoln’s volume Religion, Rebellion, Revolution, Christopher Hill also considers the lay aspect of Puritanism.4 In a sense, Hill’s story picks up where Zaret’s and Seaver’s leave off. He is concerned more with the second half of the seventeenth century than with the first. He concedes the importance of covenant theology but focuses on its breakdown rather than its origin. Like Fulbrook, he considers the radical tendencies in Puritanism, but he looks more at the conflict between rich and poor than at that between new merchant elites and the state. His discussion emphasizes the fluidity of ideas, the way in which resolutions in one period become problems in the next, and the importance of paying attention to inequalities among groups concerned with ideologies.

The phenomenon Hill seeks to explain is the shift away from a covenant theology that applied to the elect minority toward a more universalistic doctrine of salvation that applied to the majority. He suggests that this shift reflected the changing social positions of rich and poor. By 1640, the inequality between rich and poor had apparently become accentuated. Covenant theology was attractive to the rich because they had sufficient wealth to lead the godly life it required. The covenant idea, however, also required a clear doctrine of sin as a means of controlling the poorer segments of society.

Even so, Puritanism only partially solved the problem of social control, and in the 1640s the poor were able to voice their demands more insistently. An emerging antinomianism temporarily allowed competing ideas to flourish, and universalism became increasingly popular among the poor. It was a solution to the problem of sin that had been imposed on the lower classes in conjunction with the covenant theology of the elite. The elite’s response between 1640 and 1660 was increasingly to downplay the idea of sin and, indeed, to discourage reflection about the nature of God more generally. What emerged was a deistic philosophy in which the ideas of sin and God receded in favor of new social control mechanisms provided by law and legitimated by conceptions of the lawfulness of nature.

 Two Treatises of Government

The lawfulness of nature was, of course, a central argument in Locke’s political philosophy. By the end of the seventeenth century, when Locke’s ideas began to flourish, the influence of Puritanism (if Hill’s thesis is correct) was already on the wane. Yet there has also been much speculation, often prompted by explicit considerations of Weber, that Puritanism had paved the way for the Lockean theory of democracy through an elective affinity of ideas.

One of the most ambitious, and for the most part successful, attempts in recent years to examine religion and ideology within its historic context has focused squarely on this connection between Puritanism and democratic theory. Taking Locke’s Two Treatises of Government as the particular form of this theory requiring explanation, political scientist Richard Ashcraft has reexamined every relevant piece of information to provide a novel new account of the social conditions under which this influential contribution was made.5

The broader purpose of Ashcraft’s study is to demonstrate by example the virtue of taking political and religious ideology out of the realm of abstract philosophical discussion and considering it "in relation to a socially defined audience whose members seek to obtain certain practical advantages through social action."6 Ashcraft pursues this objective by demonstrating that Locke did not write the Two Treatises of Government as ivory tower reflections; to the contrary, the treatises grew out of the dynamics of a radical political movement that began in the 1670s, incorporating the exclusion crisis, the Rye House plot, and Monmouth’s rebellion, and culminating in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Ashcraft also argues that ideology needs to be understood, as Zaret suggests, within a matrix of previous concepts, slogans, tracts, and arguments that establish the framework in which discussion can take place. He supplies a vivid example by demonstrating that Locke’s use of the phrase "an invasion of rights" (from which our own phrase "invasion of privacy" developed) grew out of an encoded form of discourse used by Shaftesbury and his fellow conspirators. The agents sounded out potential recruits (usually in pubs) by engaging them in discourse about "invasions." The meaning of this ambiguous term was clarified to indicate a literal invasion only when the recruit’s loyalties had been established.

The book also provides some useful examples of the ways in which ideologies become articulated with, or reflective of, their social environments. For example, Ashcraft argues that the interest of Locke (and his contemporaries) in epistemology emerged in relation to claims advanced by the clergy and other defenders of the crown that knowledge of the common good could only come from professionally institutionalized sources — namely, the church and state bureaucracies. Ashcraft also shows how electoral politics and religious divisions resulted in an emphasis on certain kinds of ideologies, such as those asserting rationality or arguing for legal guarantees of property relations.

Weberian Themes

These studies are for the most part compatible with, and even sympathetic toward, Weber’s general approach. Indeed, they draw repeatedly on Weber’s insights. For example, Zaret not only adopts Weber’s idea of Puritan emphasis on evidences of salvation as his main dependent variable but also borrows directly from Weber in identifying price-making markets as a source of practical rationality.

Yet there are also efforts in these studies to suggest explicit reformulations of Weber. Zaret believes that his conclusions are consistent with Weber’s general views on the importance of rationalization in Western societies but suggests that his study challenges Weber’s specific ideas on the relation between ultimate values and practical ethics. According to Zaret, his evidence documents a strong causal effect running the other way — from rationalized contractarian norms in economic relations to the more abstract doctrine of covenant theology. From this finding, he adduces that Weber was probably wrong in assuming the necessity of rationalized religion for establishing a uniform hierarchy of values that challenged traditionalism and supplied motivation for the pursuit of rational economic activities. Contrary to Weber’s effort to show "how abstract ethical doctrines could influence everyday life," Zaret concludes that "practical ethics in profane activities can be no less influential for the formation of abstract doctrine."7

Fulbrook also suggests that her study challenges a strict Weberian interpretation of the relations between religious ideas and practical outcomes. She casts doubt on the assertion that there is an intrinsic affinity between certain religious ideas and political orientations by showing how similar ideas lead to different outcomes in different settings. An extreme interpretation of her findings is that ideology does not matter at all. A more cautious interpretation is that it matters but does so because it is malleable rather than fixed, changeable instead of static. Abstract ideas take on meanings within specific contexts that then motivate people to engage in one kind of action or another.

None of these studies is pitched at a general theoretical level, but they do offer theoretical implications that are worthy of more general consideration. Weber’s interest in the relations between Puritan ideology and broader economic development is clearly evident in these studies. So is his interest in the relations between Puritanism and ideas reflecting rationality in the political sphere. But whereas Weber emphasized the correspondence between ascetic Calvinism and acquisitive capitalism as ideal types, the later studies we have considered here examine the actual social conditions under which Puritan ideas were produced and modified. Attention is shifted away from general relations to intervening processes, from motivations and legitimation to the contexts of ideological production, and from functionalist or consequentialist arguments to considerations of social mechanisms that bring ideology into contact with relevant audiences and actors.

We have here a set of variables that begins to make the connections between social structure and religious ideology more plausible. Instead of being left to rely on deductive theoretical formulations about the economic or political interests served by ideologies, we are offered attempts to spell out a credible set of social factors that relate the actual producers and disseminators of ideas with their social environment, with interested audiences, and with sequences of action that put ideas into effect. It is possible to identify several types or clusters of variables that may, in various ways, be relevant generally to the study of change in religion and ideology.

An Approach to Religious Change

Beginning with broad environmental conditions that may serve indirectly to produce a climate conducive to the emergence of new ideas, we can identify variables that affect the likelihood of a potential audience being present in the first place. Zaret identifies three types of variables that probably have general relevance to the consideration of audiences: (1) social-structural variables that concern the size, social location, and access to material resources of a potential audience; (2) technical variables that specify some medium by which ideas can be communicated to this audience; and (3) cultural variables that deal with the general symbolic or mental capacities that the audience has at its disposal for processing the ideas to which it is exposed. Examples of these variables might include (1) the diffusion of markets and the integration of vocational groupings into market networks, (2) the technical capacity to produce and distribute printed materials, and (3) individuals’ familiarity with styles of reasoning and engaging in rational theological or political argumentation.

Zaret’s emphasis on audiences probably needs to be expanded in thinking about the relevance of social environments to ideology at the most general level. Audiences are not the only factor involved in changing or sustaining an ideology. Other resources are also required: material resources, such as the wherewithal to pay for printing, buildings, and salaries; and symbolic resources, such as culturally defined categories of thought and ritualized enactments of ideas or formal legitimation from scholars, professional experts, economic elites, and public officials. In addition, resource environments can be characterized in other ways than by the sheer supply of specific kinds of resources. More abstract attributes of the environment, such as its heterogeneity or instability, are also likely to be important. For example, an increase in environmental heterogeneity may facilitate the emergence of ideologies having more loosely connected elements, such as an individualistic ideology that decouples specific tenets by regarding them as matters of personal preference.

At a level more proximate to the actual production of ideology, institutional contexts also become significant theoretical variables. They interact with the broader environmental conditions in ways that shape the eventual form and content of ideas. These variables help greatly to specify the intervening mechanisms by which larger social-structural conditions affect ideologies. Instead of having to posit a direct, psychological, often mysterious effect on disaggregated individuals, the investigator is able to show that ideas are actually produced by specific sets of people who have access to necessary material and cultural resources, are influenced by particular organizational constraints, and bring their ideas into contact with an audience that has reasons to be receptive.

In dealing with the institutional contexts in which ideologies are produced, one’s attention must include consideration of inequities in the distribution of social resources. These inequities are not only important for determining who has access to means of cultural production; they also become problems with respect to social control that may result in attempted ideological resolutions. Even though ideologies may be advanced in the name of a small minority, rationalizing tendencies of the kind Weber observed may require conceptions of the relative statuses of people more generally. These kinds of analyses — studies of the relations between ideologies and status groups — tend to become unsatisfactory to the extent that they stop with mere assertions about interests and legitimation. Further efforts are generally needed to specify how the interests of particular status groups are brought to the attention of the producers of ideology, how these producers respond, and what constraints influence their response.

A clue that may often be helpful in addressing these questions lies in the notion that cultural producers themselves have a stake in maintaining their position and may engage in creative compromises in order to do so. Periods of rapid social change, such as revolutions, may expand the opportunities for such innovations by altering distributions of resources, upsetting institutionalized roles, generating uncertainties in moral obligations, and setting in motion competing ideological movements.

Fulbrook’s study demonstrates the value of recognizing not only that ideas are produced within institutions but also that these institutions have important relations with other institutions. An established church may be the immediate context in which a religious movement appears, and it may be the focus of the movement’s ideology, but this institution is in turn likely to depend on the state and the economic hierarchy for support. The broad environmental changes that Zaret identifies are mediated not through a single institution but through a set of related institutions. The effect of these broader changes is not only to create a lay audience for ideological reform but to influence the relations among institutions. Fulbrook’s study illustrates especially well the importance of resources such as political support and economic patronage, both of which may depend less on the nature of the popular audience than on macro-level linkages among institutions. Her work, therefore, points to the possibility of making genuine contributions to the study of religious ideology by focusing on broad institutional relations.

An additional set of relevant variables may be termed action sequences. These are concerned with the fact that cultural producers actually do something to generate cultural innovations. These action sequences include the responses of actors to stimuli in their immediate situations — specifically, responses that involve attempts to articulate ideas, to make sense of things, to offer interpretations acceptable to relevant constituencies. The significance of conceptualizing these responses as a distinct set of variables is that cultural innovations are seen as a result of specific actions, not just general phenomena that emerge automatically and mysteriously from structural conditions. These actions also incorporate an element of agency or voluntarism into the theoretical framework, like Weber’s idea of the charismatic leader, only in a broader sense.

Several considerations of a more specific kind are relevant to the analysis of action sequences that result in religious change. One is the importance of specific crises or triggering events that lead actors to utter pronouncements or offer interpretations. Zaret calls these pressures. For example, Puritan clergy had to respond to a series of specific demands or controversies, such as nonconformity in wearing the surplice and using the cross in baptism. These immediate crises may, of course, also become symbols that stand for positions on more general issues.

Another valuable consideration in treating action sequences is the idea of compromise or synthesis. The new religious views that are produced often represent a bringing together of several formerly distinct strands of thought. In some instances, close analysis of this process can actually show how specific cultural categories were drawn upon, combined, and modified. The result can be the emergence of a new dominant idea (the idea of "covenant" in the Puritan case), a new model or metaphor for thinking about moral obligations (contractarian metaphors in Lockean theory), or a new form underlying the relations among ideological elements (individual conscience as a decoupling mechanism). In other words, the outcome of an action sequence may be a specific idea or concept distinguished by explicit substantive content, or an underlying metaphor that influences ideas without becoming a key concept itself, or a formal structure that has to be inferred from the relations among ideas.

An implicit consideration in the analysis of action sequences is the existence of several competing ideologies, interpretations, or interpreters. Actors are likely to compete with one another to gain control over a situation by making sense of it or imposing an ideological definition on it. Their competition may stem from their having different organizational locations, different interests, or different cultural materials with which to work. In the Puritan case, for example, several radical Separatist groups emerged alongside the more moderate Puritan clergy. Once such competition has developed, its very presence is likely to influence the manner in which ideas are articulated. In addition to stating their own views, actors are likely to engage in real or imaginary dialogue with their competitors, attempt to debunk or neutralize competing ideas, or use them as illustrations of wrong-headed or unworkable proposals. For example, the idea of a heavenly contract gained cogency among Puritan clerics at least in part because it was used to support specific arguments against radical heretics’ ideas about adult baptism and free will.

Whenever action sequences involve competition between different theological views, the role of immediate institutional constraints and environmental resources is likely to be that of influencing the selection process among different ideas. That is, certain ideas over time are increasingly "selected for" because they fit the situation better (make sense of it and have resources at their disposal), while other ideas are "selected against."

For instance, Puritan emphases on self-control and introspective examination were increasingly selected for after 1590 when hope was lost that the state could be used as a resource for imposing ecclesiastical controls on the laity. From the standpoint of specific clergy or theologians, this sort of selection process may well have resulted in unforeseen outcomes. Actors respond to events with partial knowledge of relevant conditions and articulate short-term visions of what needs to be done, and the significant cultural outcome is more likely to depend on the cumulative trajectory of these decisions than on any clearly articulated plan set forth at the beginning.

What we have, then, as a general framework implicit in these studies is a three-factor model of cultural production. It consists of environmental conditions, institutional contexts, and action sequences. Considering all three sets of variables as well as the relations among them enables the analyst to look at the possible effects of very general social conditions on ideas and yet to identify some plausible intervening links between these conditions and the specific ideas that result. Weberian notions about master tendencies in modem culture (e.g., the tendency toward rationalization) and the mutual relations between these tendencies and other developments (e.g., industrialization and bureaucratization) can thus be subjected to concrete empirical investigation. We need no longer leave these relations at the level of correlational affinities if the process by which these affinities develop begins to take on specific shape.

Weber, Marx, and the Subjective

One further issue is Weber’s emphasis on subjective meanings. Continental sociologists have often been critical of their Anglo-American colleagues for stressing too heavily Weber’s interest in the subjective. Yet it is clearly not an exaggeration to say that Weber’s emphasis on the Protestant ethic, on the spirit of capitalism, and on meaning, motivation, and verstehen all underscore an interest in the subjective. This interest continues to make Weber attractive to many sociologists, but the feature is not without its problems. In the case of Protestant capitalist theses, it has resulted in emphasis being placed on subjective affinities between sets of ideas rather than on the institutional settings in which ideas are actually produced, as in the work of Zaret and Fulbrook. More generally, it has led to an approach to religion and ideology that is methodologically problematic because it requires analysts to probe subjective meanings buried away in people’s heads. How was it, then, that Weber was able to pay so much attention to the subjective?

The answer generally tendered is that Weber’s concern with the subjective developed in response to, and can be taken as a corrective to, Marx’s economic determinism. According to this interpretation, Weber wanted to demonstrate that people do not live by bread alone, as it were, but are guided by the internal motivations and meanings that come from their ideas. This explanation may be valid, although the contrast it suggests between Weber and Marx is probably overdrawn, given Marx’s interest in the subjective problem of alienation. Nevertheless, the question remains of why a critical observer such as Weber was able, from his early interest in the Puritan ethic, to sustain the conviction that one could make reliable statements about subjective meanings. An answer to this question can be found in Seaver’s treatment of Wallington.

We know a great deal about Wallington’s subjective worldview because he wrote everything down. His penchant for writing, while perhaps more extreme than that of his contemporaries, was itself a reflection of an important Puritan concern — what Seaver calls "the examined life." Wallington wrote everything down as a way of objectifying his own thoughts and feelings. He did so because the Puritan idea of a covenant between God and the elect providing evidence of one’s election motivated the believer to keep accounts, to know his thoughts and feelings in order more carefully to discipline them and to guard against temptation.

Moreover, Puritanism provided a rich set of available scripts to facilitate turning one’s inner feelings into objective narratives. In Wa!lington’s case, for example, we are bombarded with direct quotations and paraphrases from the Bible, with explicit references to Puritan doctrines (such as justification and election), and with rich metaphorical and allegoric images (about beasts, trees, illnesses, Journeys, and so on). Wallington seldom speaks of a subjective state at all; rather, he obje tifies his self, using a host of concepts such as "saint," "soul," "bosom," "the godly," "the Lord’s dear one," and so on. It is almost as if Wallington is writing about someone other than himself, or about himself only as a member of a broader category. He expresses deep emotion and inner feelings, but in highly codified ways: he has "peace and comfort," "takes delight," "strives mightily in this heart," "lays hold upon," "experiences conflict between the flesh and the spirit." What we have, then, is a situation in which introspection is demanded on the one hand, and made possible by a readily available and exceedingly rich set of cultural codes on the other.

The Puritan setting was perhaps unique in this respect. Indeed, Hill argues that by the end of the seventeenth century theological emphases had shifted in a way that militated against self-examination of this kind. The Puritan case, in this sense, provided Weber with a rather unusual glimpse of the subjective. It was not at all like the modern research interview in which an observer attempts to elicit information about subjectively held attitudes from individuals who have never reflected on their feelings until the moment when they are presented with preceded questions that are not part of their own subculture. If anything, the Puritan case was more like a clinical setting in which clients talk about feelings in highly codified terms that have been provided by psychoanalytic theory, learned by interacting with the therapist, and sanctioned by ideas about the value of self-examination.

The special qualities of Puritan discourse probably need to be kept in mind in attempts to imitate Weber’s concern with subjectivity. What he was getting were messages about subjective meanings that were filtered through a very formalized, socially constructed set of cultural categories. It may be, therefore, that less attention should be given to the idea of subjective meanings and more research should be devoted to the socially constructed categories used in discourse about these meanings.

This conclusion also leads to a more general point about the nature of culture that is consistent with the previously mentioned criticism leveled by Zaret against the idea of abstract values legitimating practical ethics. Sociological theories of the 1940s and 1950s tended to portray culture as a hierarchy of values that was integrated by higher-order religious values and was internalized by the person, thereby giving unity and direction to the person’s behavior. Although some of these discussions saw inspiration for this view in Weber, it can be argued that it was more generally derived from common notions in American political theory. More recent discussions of culture have largely abandoned this emphasis on a hierarchy of values and have focused to a much greater extent on discourse, symbolism, and communication. From this perspective, the essence of culture lies less in its internalized capacities for integration and motivation than in its communicative potential. On theoretical grounds, therefore, the subjective aspect of culture becomes less important than the objective components evidenced in texts, discourse, and expressive behavior.

Drawing together the various arguments suggested by these studies, then, we see a view of religion and ideology rather different from that advanced by Weber. Religion is envisioned not as a set of internalized values that influences an individual’s moods and motivations but rather as a codified set of concepts and categories that is evident in discourse, reinforced by practical commitments, and advanced in institutional settings. To understand how ideas change, we need to consider not only subjective needs and values but also the relations between actors who articulate ideas and actors who provide an audience for these ideas, the institutional contexts in which these dynamics take place, and the larger social resources that institutions have at their disposal.



  1. Zaret, The Heavenly Contract: Ideology and Organization in Pre-Revolutionary Puritanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).
  2. Futbrook, Piety and Politics: Religion and the Rise of Absolutism in England, W/irttemberg, and Prussia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
  3. Seaver, Wallington ‘s World~ A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985).
  4. Hill, "Popular Religion and the English Revolution," in Religion, Rebellion, Revolution, ed. Bruce Lincoln (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), pp. 46-68.
  5. Ashcraft, Revolutionary Politics and Locke’s "Two Treatises of Government" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986).
  6. Ashcraft, Revolutionary Politics and Locke’s "Two Treatises of Government," p. 7.
  7. Zaret, The Heavenly Contract, p. 208.