Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1938-) Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, born and educated in England; President, Association for the Sociology of Religion, 1988.

Throughout his career, Robertson's interest in the study of religion, initially inspired by the work of his teacher Bryan Wilson, has focused on religion as that domain of modern culture in which rival conceptions of order and identity clash most fatefully. Challenging conventional views of religion that portray it as epiphenomenal, privatized, or bound-to-be-secularized, Robertson regards religion as a significant object of intercivilizational encounters, and indeed as a force shaping a newly emergent, heterogeneous global culture. While Robertson has been an influential interpreter of Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel, he has drawn much of his own theoretical inspiration from the work of Talcott Parsons as well.

Apart from essays on the Salvation Army and Parsonian theory, Robertson's early work focused on issues of international development. With J. P. Nettl (1968), he criticized analyses of socioeconomic development that portrayed the process as requiring universal preconditions, leading to similar goals across the globe. Instead, he interpreted development as deliberate efforts by elites focused on extrinsic goals, measuring the performance of their societies against yardsticks set by others and the changes achieved by competitors in an international ranking system. All "local" development was therefore part of a global system; all societal policies were inherently related to transsocietal standards and reference groups. Robertson was among the first to conceptualize an international stratification system. The relativity of change implied by this new view of the global system has remained a theme in his thinking.

Robertson's first major study in the sociology of religion (1970) not only served as an authoritative introduction but also outlined desirable modes and problems of inquiry for the field. Robertson defended a strongly substantive view of religion, urged a distinction between social and cultural aspects of religion, outlined different dimensions of secularization, and emphasized the distinctive contribution of a reflexive sociology in the study of religion. In each respect, Robertson proposed a resolution of old conundrums. Throughout the book, he interpreted distinctive features of American religious culture and organization with analytical tools partly derived from the classical European tradition. For instance, he interpreted the tendency of scholars such as Parsons and Bellah to attribute special spiritual significance to the actual historical tradition of their society as a typically American form of secularizing immanentism.

After spending some years reinterpreting the classical figures in sociology (1978, Robertson and Holzner 1980), Robertson gradually merged his interests in the cultural role of religion with his thinking about the emerging system of societies. He proposed that the world as a whole was undergoing massive changes that were turning it into one relatively integrated sociocultural system, one "place." Actors around the world were increasingly conscious of this process, but due to their various locations and traditions, all such actors, notably religious leaders, offered radically different views of desirable global change. Religion was an integral part of the process of globalization and a crucial domain in which conflicts over alternative directions were played out. By concentrating on the religious aspect of global change, Robertson also intended to challenge conventional views of the world system as caused by economic forces and made up of economic structures. At the same time, Robertson did not intend to substitute an idealist picture of the world as shaped by religion for an older materialist version. The main processes of globalization can be described, he argued, in terms of the relationships between four increasingly differentiated units: individual selves, humankind, national societies, and the system of societies.

This shift in perspective has had important implications for Robertson (1992). First, while much of sociology has been concerned with the dynamics of culturally bounded national societies, he argues that individual and societal identities are increasingly relativized in the new global setting. National cultures are called into question just as the need to declare one's identity under global pressure increased. Church-state tensions around the world illustrate the process at work. Second, in response to unsettling global changes, religious groups and movements may urge a return to fundamentals, not simply as a way to root individual selves in the religious culture of a nation but also as a way to reshape world order as such. The ambitions of Islamic fundamentalism are a case in point. Third, while religious groups and institutions may have lost some of their historic social significance, the secularization of Western countries should not obscure their central role in offering new images of world order. Indeed, religions and their representatives are participants in a global debate about the direction of global change. "The world," no longer just an abstract theological notion, now presents concrete problems of meaning. However, given the complexity and pluralism of the world scene, it is unlikely that any one actor can claim special success in addressing them. Fourth, the study of religion has something to offer world-system analysis. Specifically, it focuses attention on the way in which new global actors are created and legitimated and on the way in which new rules of global interaction and discourse are set. On this score, Robertson regards the decades before and after 1900 as crucial. Fifth, studying world conflict from this sociology of religion perspective debunks conventional forms of economic or political reductionism. According to Robertson, to accentuate the point, all world politics is cultural.

In this way, Robertson has begun to reconsider many classic issues in the sociology of religion from a distinctive global point of view. He wants to move beyond traditional debates about societal secularization, about religion as a source of identity, or about fundamentalism as localized antimodern movements. In many ways, however, his later work proposes a research agenda rather than a finished project. While this reflects the fluidity of the very changes he aims to capture in his writings, it leaves questions about the origins and prime movers of his cultural globalization still unanswered. Similarly, his work has an interpretive character and often shies away from making firm causal claims. As a critique of reductionism in world-system analysis, it has been quite effective, yet readers may detect a compensatory idealism in Robertson's own thinking. New categories of thought, new interpretations of the global scene, often appear to shape that scene most effectively. Still, Robertson has already had an impact on the agenda of the sociology of religion. His writings not only have stimulated a new way of thinking about the world but also have made sociologists of religion rethink the premises of their own enterprise. As he would put it, they are now trying to make sense of a new form of global complexity, of a world of reflexive interlocutors in which they themselves intervene through their interpretations of religious action and change.

Frank J. Lechner


P. Beyer, Religion and Globalization (London: Sage, 1994)

F. J. Lechner (ed.), "The Sociology of Roland Robertson," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 31(1992):294-323

T. Robbins and R. Robertson (eds.), Church-State Relations (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1986)

R. Robertson, The Sociological Interpretation of Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1970)

R. Robertson, Meaning and Change (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978)

R. Robertson, Globalization (London: Sage, 1992)

R. Robertson and B. Holzner (eds.), Identity and Authority (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980)

R. Robertson and J. P. Nettl, International Systems and the Modernization of Societies (New York: Basic Books, 1968).

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