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09 August 2017

Take Me to Church: Re-purposing the Sociology Club

It's that time of year again, and we're gearing up for the start of a new semester. I enjoyed an afternoon "retreat" with my colleagues earlier this week, and it was very productive and helped me to do the mental transition from summer mode to school mode. One item on our agenda was how best to help our students with the mental and emotional fallout from studying a field as heavy as sociology. We are a notorious downer of a discipline, focusing on poverty, racism, sexism, etc., and all of that negativity can have troubling effects on those of us who do this daily.

I had a spark of inspiration as my colleagues were talking about the creeping depression (clinical or otherwise) that affects our undergrads. How can we teach our students about the social ills of the world without shoving them off the cliff of melancholy? As a sociologist of religion, I connected what I know of Evangelical Protestants/Sectarian Christians and sociology majors. Evangelicals are unique, according to Chris Smith, for a kind of paradoxical social orientation. On the one hand, they are instructed to be leery of "the world" (i.e. the mainstream culture). Secular influence is seen as, at best, a collection of temptations to be treated with extreme caution or, at worst, an irredeemable pit of evil and depravity. On the other hand, they are required to engage with the world, to evangelize and proselytize. In other words, the world is bad but unavoidable. The sociological twist is that this paradox allows them to generate incredible in-group solidarity. Their affiliation rescues them from inevitable acedia.

Perhaps, I thought, we could replicate this model in some secular manner for our students. Right now, our students get a lot of the "world is bad" stuff from us, and to some extent, they also get the "fix the world" engagement stuff as well, but what they so far haven't gotten is a place to generate the solidarity necessary to sustain those orientations. Enter the sociology club. Too often our students imagine the sociology club to be a kind of extracurricular classroom, where they continue the academics they started in the classroom, but one of my colleagues suggested that, given the right direction from us as faculty and the basis of some form of secular rituals (i.e. behaviors), the sociology club could serve as a place for our majors to be reminded not just of their shared ideas (i.e. beliefs) but also of their shared identity (i.e. belonging). Our hope is that the social-psychological effects of this will mirror those among Evangelicals. I'll keep you posted.

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