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Pilgrim’s Progress:  
An Exercise in Reflexive Sociology

Margaret M. Poloma
Department of Sociology
The University of Akron
Akron, OH 44325-1905

Paper prepared for "Integrating Spirituality and Social Science" Session at the Southern Sociological Society Meetings in Atlanta, GA (April, 2001).

Combining the allegory of John Bunyan’s (1981) all-time classic with the critical theoretical writings of sociologist Alvin Gouldner (1961; 1970; 1973), as done in the title of this presentation, may evoke a sense of incongruity. Wedding the tale of Christian the pilgrim with an autobiographical reflexive sociology, however, does provide a literary context and as well as a sociological paradigm for sharing a personal account of how spirituality and social science can be integrated. It is hoped that Gouldner’s admonition to be aware of personal biases and the need to disclose background and domain assumptions underlying a social scientist’s work will mute some of the absolutist tone of Bunyan’s religious allegory. At the same time after having found what I believed to be the pearl of great price as a young sociologist, I was and remain unwilling to sacrifice it on the positivistic altar that all too often has negated the importance of spiritual concerns. It is with some playfulness that I seek to use Bunyan and Goulder together as a frame for presenting my narrative.

On my journey I have regularly encountered other pilgrims, both those who share my Christian convictions and many who do not, who have risked reputation and career as they embarked on the perilous path of integrating scholarship and faith. While not always on identical itineraries, we spiritual pilgrims all journey toward the same goal. I begin this task of sharing an overview of my pilgrimage with no little trepidation and with a full awareness that it is illustrative of but one account rather than representative of many. My hope is that it will provide a base for some helpful comments from the panelists and that taken together the thoughts exchanged in this session may serve as spiritual and intellectual food for all of us who are here today.

A Pilgrimage Prologue
My graduate school days during the height of the Vietnam War, student unrest, racial violence, and feminist protest could be characterized as a time of spiritual quest, but they proved to be but a prologue to my pilgrimage. As a pre-Vatican II cradle Catholic educated in parochial schools from kindergarten through college, I witnessed the Baltimore Catechism of my upbringing challenged by forces similar to those fueling the social unrest of the era. To paraphrase Emile Durkheim, the faith of my childhood was dying or already dead and a satisfying new faith was yet to be born. Neither Auguste Comte nor any of the masters of sociological thought could convince me that sociology could become the religion of my adult life. Although I devoured the prophetic writings of critical sociologists like C. Wright Mills and Alvin Gouldner, I was unwilling to make critical sociology (or any other sociology) my new religion. Instead I put religious concerns aside after successfully completing my doctoral prelims in the sociology of religion and adopted the stance of an atheistic existentialist and a sociological critic.

I assumed my professional responsibilities as an assistant professor of sociology in a Gofmanesque manner, mindful that we are all con-artists. Aware that the presentation of self is deceitful and illusive, I tried to avoid the trap of becoming a true-believer of my own cynicism about sociology and its potential to bring any lasting personal fulfillment. At the same time, reflexive sociology together with its interactionist parent paradigm became an important lens to help me keep my sociological endeavors in perspective as human products rather than absolute truth. From time to time I would recall a research project carried out by Indiana professor Frank R.Westie in 1971 in which I was one anonymous respondent. Westie (1972) attempted to explore how sociologists went about justifying their professional lives by examining the survey responses of 198 sociologists and used this information to write his presidential address for the North Central Sociological Association titled, "Academic Expectations for Professional Immortality: A Study of Legitimation." The gist of the findings was that although some half the respondents expected that their own research and writing would somehow survive the ravages of time, significant numbers had forgotten the names and the contributions of a substantial number of past presidents of the American Sociological Association. If past ASA presidents could not survive the test of time in their own discipline, I was certain that I would never make a lasting mark either. Sociology was a game of life I intended to play, but I had no illusion that it would ever be worth the price of my soul.

Putting aside my scholarly interest in religion once I had moved to an agnostic stance, my work was now focused on ground-floor research on the two-career family and later voluntarily childless couples. By the mid-1970s, settled in marriage and career, I turned my attention to sociological theory, courses about which held more interest than family sociology of the 1970s. Filtering contemporary sociological theory through the sociology of knowledge, I began to write a text that would lay bare the assumptions underlying contemporary sociological thought for the undergraduate student. It was as I struggled with this text, seeking to understand the major assumptions that underlie the different sociological paradigms (and trying to get my work into acceptable form for publication) that I received an unexpected gift that turned my life around.

An Epiphany in Social Context
In the early 1970s I was approached by a rector of a small Episcopal congregation to undertake an evaluation research project for his church. The relationship between this priest, who seemed to have an unwavering but naïve faith, and me was friendly but somewhat contentious. Although curious about how an intelligent person could sincerely maintain religious faith in the modern world, I found that I could no longer share in its tenets and was often intolerant of anyone who could. What I eventually recognized was that although I had reasoned my way to non-belief, I could not reason my way back into faith. It was against this background that one day I found myself praying a version of an agnostic’s prayer. I asked God (if there was a God) to reveal Himself to me. The immediate response was being filled with a sense of God’s nearness, similar to senses I had with some frequency as a child while attending Catholic mass, receiving Holy Communion or making visits to the church during breaks in classes throughout my long years of Catholic schooling. I recognized this sense, one that I had not experienced in years, and was overwhelmed by its intensity. My response was to recite the familiar Our Father (the only prayer I could think of out of my once-Catholic repertoire) and then to weep. Once my cognitive brain re-engaged, I knew I could not return to the faith of my childhood, and I was being forced to begin a religious quest which I had put aside as a graduate student.

I was about to embark on a pilgrimage but had not yet met Christian’s Evangelist of Buynan’s allegory. It was some months before I accepted the reality of a Risen Christ (again as a result of an unexpected religious experience), gradually learned that God would continue to send experiences to guide my life, and began the serious journey of a pilgrim.

A Lesson in Surrender and Encountering Christian Sociologists
My immediate response to my conversion experiences in the mid-1970s was to consider leaving academic sociology and to train for a service profession, perhaps counseling. I was still pondering this career change when I had two guiding experiences, both of which were early lessons on how to hear the voice of God. One involved the publication of my theory book, a project I had begun before my religious conversion. Involvement in the Catholic charismatic movement opened up doors for my experiencing God in everyday life that I never knew possible, and sociology seemed so insignificant in comparison to my newly found relationship with God. I decided, however, to complete my commitment to write the text and then waited for my publisher’s decision. Months later after having put my best efforts into completing the theory text, I received a reply. The reviews were mixed, and I knew there was no way I could satisfy all of my reviewers, as the editor seemed to direct. As I prayed about the situation, I was able to surrender the book—and my career—into the hands of God. My reply to my editor (which seemed divinely directed) involved putting myself into his position, being able to understand his seeming reluctance to publish this text. There would be no disagreement if he were to withdraw the contract. Six weeks later I received another letter from my editor, instructing me to put the final touches on the manuscript. It was going to press. I read this unexpected decision as a lesson in surrender and a sign that I was to continue my search for integrating my faith and sociology.

While completing my work on Contemporary Sociological Theory, I encountered George Hillery, founder of the Christian Sociological Society. George had also abandoned his religious faith in graduate school, had a dramatic conversion experience twelve years before we met, and was actively trying to integrate his faith with his work as a sociologist in a secular university. We immediately connected. Our meeting was one of those examples of divine serendipity that I have learned to expect during my pilgrimage. During our first encounter at an ASA meeting in Chicago in 1977, George said he felt as if he were looking at his "mirror image," a feeling that I shared. Before we parted, George asked me if I would pray about becoming the editor of the Newsletter for the Christian Sociological Society.

If George had asked me outright to take on the editorship, I would have declined without hesitation. Trouble was brewing in my home department, allegedly over my Christian involvement that eventually led to a lawsuit brought on by one of my former colleagues (whose employment was later terminated by the University). While my faith had nothing to do with his being denied tenure, he tried to make it a central issue in his termination. The bottom line, however, was that I did not feel it was the right time to become visibly involved in CSS. George’s request to "pray about" my decision forced me to delay my negative response to accepting the editorship. As I prayed about George’s request, I sensed the answer would come through my department chair, who himself was an agnostic and not particularly supportive of my Christian activity on campus. When I approached him about George’s request his response astounded me: "If you are going to stay involved in this Christian stuff, you need to accept the editorship. The group needs your solid approach to the academic world." So it is that I became editor of the Newsletter, a task I performed for 9 years, and began serving on the steering committee of CSS.

It was during this initial contact with CSS that I met Charles (Charlie) DeSanto, whose life we are remembering at this session and again at the CSS gathering tonight. I was drawn to Charlie’s gentle spirit, revealing a pastor’s heart intertwined with scholarship in service of the Christian sociological community. After writing two articles for his introductory reader, he invited me to co-edit a social problems text. Charlie will always be remembered for his commitment to students and his writings that encouraged young people to embark on their pilgrimages. He provided me with encouragement, support, and a forum for beginning my own integrative work in Christian sociology.

Continuing the Journey: Listening For Divine Guidance
Within the first year of my post-conversion experience I recall praying about how to know what God wanted of my life. Who could serve as my spiritual guide around the obstacles that threatened my pilgrimage. (Someone was volunteering for this role, but I was not certain whether I could trust this person for that task.) During one such prayer, I sensed that I should simply open the Bible as random (some might call it "Bible roulette") and I would get an answer. The pages opened to Psalm 32:8, a passage that has become central to my spiritual life over the decades that followed: "I will instruct you, I will be your guide, I will show you the way to go." I took that to mean that God would guide not only decisions about spiritual matters but also my career decisions. After what seemed like a long period of waiting, God seemed to direct me into research on the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement.

Although there is not time to tell the whole story, suffice to say that it was a prophetic word from George Hillery at an ASA meeting in 1980 that caused me to redirect my research and writing from family and theory to the sociology of religion. This is a narrative I wove into the research appendix of my book The Charismatic Movement: Is There a New Pentecost? (Poloma 1982). This same sense of direction guided me to do my initial research on the Assemblies of God, an account that can be found in the methodological appendix of that book (Poloma 1989). More recently I found myself directed toward Canada to continue research on the revitalization of the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement coming through the so-called Toronto Blessing that began in January of 1994. (The personal story behind my ongoing research on the revivals sweeping through the P/C movement can be found in Poloma 2000.)

My interest in the PC movement, particularly the belief in and practice of divine healing, led me to a third and interrelated part of work, namely that of researching spirituality and health. Although sociologists recognized that religion is a multidimensional phenomenon that includes religious experience, the experiential dimension that clearly is basic to the P/C movement has been largely overlooked. I began to consider ways that religious experience could be studied in the larger non-P/C population. Framed within the larger body of literature on religiosity and subjective perceptions of well-being, I began exploring the nature of religiosity and its effects on health, with a particular focus on prayer. The exploratory work conducted during the 1985 Akron Area Survey (Poloma and Pendleton 1991) continued with research done with George H. Gallup, Jr. (Poloma and Gallup 1991) dealing with prayer and prayer experiences.

If there is a single key to describing how I have attempted to integrate my spirituality and research, I would say it is through prayer. Although I know that I do not always hear the voice of God nor do I always correctly discern what is being said, I do believe God is eager to lead and to guide as promised in Psalm 32:8. My research on prayer has taught me that Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians (from whom I learned about the common qualities of mystical prayer) are not alone when they insist that they "hear" from God. The national survey conducted with Gallup found that nearly one in ten of respondents claimed to regularly experience being "divinely inspired or ‘led by God’ to perform some specific action." Only 43 percent of respondents never had this experience. Clearly "hearing the voice of God" in prayer is not as deviant as a leading sociology text of the 1980s implied with its comments about prayer in the opening section of a chapter on social deviance!

In closing I would say that religious experience is a most important but often overlooked dimension of religiosity. Much of my work has been directed toward addressing that deficiency and in exploring the effects of religious experience both on institutional development and on individual well-being (Poloma 1995).

Approaching the Celestial City
Although I cannot claim to have arrived at Bunyan’s Celestial City, I must confess that taking an early retirement from the constraints of a regular academic position comes perhaps as close as I dare come to it on this side of life. During the last few years I have found it possible to spend days and even weeks in the field leisurely studying concerns that are of great interest to me. Since my "retirement" in 1995, it has not always been clear where my research leaves off and where my spiritual enrichment begins. The old distinctions between sacred and secular that seemed necessary for doing research and teaching in a secular university are fading as I explore more holistic models of person and society as an independent scholar. If we are "hard wired" for God as Harvard Mind Body Institute’s Herbert Benson suggests, then there is much more to learn about the intimate relationship that does exist between spirituality and our social scientific study of humanity. Hopefully the discussion that follows will strengthen the resolve of those already on this pilgrimage and will entice still others to join us.


Bunyan, Paul. 1981. The Pilgrim’s Progress. Whitaker House:Springfield, PA.

Gouldner, Alvin W. 1961. "Ani-Minotaur: The Myth of a Value-free Sociology."
Presidential Address given at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Social Problems. Published in Social Problems (Winter, 1062:199-212).

Gouldner, Alvin W. 1970. The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. NY: Basic Books.

Gouldner, Alvin W. 1973. For Sociology. NY:Basic Books.

Poloma, Margaret M. 1979. Contemporary Sociological Theory. Macmillan Publishing Company. New York.

Poloma, Margaret M. 1982. The Charismatic Movement: Is There a New Pentecost? Twayne Publishing Company. Boston.

Poloma, Margaret M. 1989. The Assemblies of God at the Crossroads: Charisma and Institutional Dilemmas. The University of Tennessee Press. Knoxville.

Poloma, Margaret M. and George H. Gallup, Jr. 1991. Varieties of Prayer: A Survey Report. Trinity Press International. Philadelphia.

Poloma, Margaret M. 1995. "The Sociological Context of Religious Experience." Pp. 161-182 in Ralph Hood (ed) Handbook of Religious Experience. Religious Education Press. Birmingham, AL.

Poloma, Margaret M. 2000. "Pilgrim’s Progress: Reflections on a Journey." Pp. 202-213 in John Arnott (ed.) Experience the Father’s Blessing. Ventura, CA: Gospel Light Publishing.

Westie, Frank R. 1972. "Academic Expectations for Professional Immortality: A Study of Legitimation. Sociological Focus (5):1-25.




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