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Religion and Economy

Ryan Schram
27 November 2015

A revised version of this article appears in the International Encyclopedia of Anthropology: The Anthropology of Religion (Wiley Blackwell, 2018).

The sacred society and the sacred self

The interaction of religious ideas and economic practices raise critical questions for anyone wishing to understand either. In classical social theories, religion and economy appear as distinct domains of social behavior and organization. Yet although these theories attribute different kinds of logic to them, throughout the world, one regularly encounters situations in which people bring together spiritual, cosmological and material concerns in unexpected ways, challenging the theoretical conception of religion and economy as social domains.

In the Durkheimian tradition, society is a thing sui generis and a total system, a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. Religion in its most elementary sense, practices which are oriented to the sacred, is central to Durkheim's concept of the social body. Durkheim argues that all societies, large and small, must declare something to be sacred, that is, something “protected and isolated by prohibitions” (Durkheim 1995, 38). The sacred need not require reverence as such, but for Durkheim, anything classified as sacred entails rules that every individual must follow and which mark it off from normal life. It is through contact with the sacred, then, that individuals submit themselves to a collective order, and thus give over part of their consciousness to the collective mind of society. Thus, for Durkheim, the study of society and the study of religion go hand in hand as part of an examination of a society's system of qualitative values. A categorical distinction between sacred and profane is the first social fact, the first construct of society's collective consciousness which all its members treat as objective reality. In that sense, religious institutions, at least in this minimal definition, have a distinct function in every social order, maintaining the subordination of the individual to the group as a whole.

Yet because Durkheimian social anthropology ironically makes a particular conception of religion so central to society, it dissolves the category altogether. Because the sacred-profane dichotomy was taken as fundamental to social order itself, scholars assumed that for most so-called primitive societies, religious, moral and ritual behavior were functionally part of social order writ large, and thus did not need to be examined as a distinct domain within society. Anything which had a normative regularity was itself moral in Durkheimian thinking. All collective representations, whether the sacred mana of Polynesian hereditary chiefs, the invisible spirits of witches which depart from one's body and afflicted one's kin, the animal which is a totem of one's kin group, the spirit of the deceased which hovers over its own funeral to ensure that its kin properly mourn, and the spirit of the ancestor who punishes transgressions of gendered spaces with misfortunes, all of these were in some way refractions of each society's category of the sacred, and each required people to conduct themselves in a prescribed manner. Social anthropology was very good at identifying a collection of central social institutions which served multiple functions simultaneously, and generally bound individuals to the collective. Actions thus expressed religious ideas, affirmed the rules of kinship, and structured subsistence practices all at once.

Moreover, in this framework, properly economic behavior in the sense of rational means-ends calculation was seen as being contrary to the essence of society as totality. We see this most clearly in the work of Marcel Mauss, one of Durkheim's most devoted students, who applied his mentor's sociology to the question of economic organization. Mauss argued that all economic systems derived from an elementary type of social totality which he called a “system of total services” in which every member was bound in ties of interdependence to every other member of society (Mauss 2000, 5–6). Everything one needed was directly and concretely provided as a service by someone else, and likewise, one's own work was always for the benefit of others. All societies in some way derive from this originary condition, and all systems of exchange thus need to be examined as reflections of it. Mauss argued then, that for most societies, and throughout human history, economic activity was not governed by individual negotiations, but by a moral principle he called reciprocity. Economic activity in many societies takes the form of an exchange of gifts. In societies based on reciprocity, gifts are rendered as services, and each member has an obligation to give, to receive the gifts of others, and to reciprocate what they receive. Here Mauss connects his own model of exchange as moral order to Durkheim's concept of the sacred. Gifts, Mauss tells us, are possessed of the spirit of the person who gives them, a hau, quoting the words of a Maori man. In this way, economic behavior is completely subordinated not only to cosmology, but to the fact of society as a total system.

Durkheim and Mauss were, like all Western social theorists, ultimately interested in the emergence of modernity, and in particular a economic system based on markets. They did not, however, see this as a process of individual liberation from the traditional rules of the group, but as the progressive specialization of the social division of labor, and in Durkheim's words, a resulting increase in the moral density of society as a whole. In traditional societies, the principle of integration is primarily based on mechanical solidarity, or a feeling of unity based on one's sameness with others, symbolized by the sacred. As societies develop a more complex division of labor, integration all its members into a whole comes to depend more on organic solidarity, that is, a bond based on complementarity and interdependence. Likewise, for Mauss, the sacred hau of the gift gives way to exchanges governed by contracts. Sacred symbols still matter in complex societies, but become associated with specialized institutions which provide rituals of mechanical integration and a sense of collective morality. When discussing modern societies, then, Durkheimian sociology has treated properly religious forms as a distinct domain, and effectively equates all religion with tradition.

The legacy of Durkheimian sociology in social studies of the economy can be seen in the work of Karl Polanyi, a historian interested in political economy. Influenced by Marx yet reluctant to embrace his dialectical materialism, Polanyi argued that markets were a distinct form of social institution emerging at a specific point in history (Polanyi 1957). For Polanyi, all economic activity is embedded to some degree in social relationships and is governed by social rules. In this respect he is very influenced by Mauss's theory of the gift, which Polanyi takes as the quintessential form of embeddedness. The hau of the gift limits what individual transactors can do with what they own, and a society based on the gift is one in which all value is, if not collectively owned, then at least morally a commons. When markets are established, certain kinds of good are disembbeded from these kinds of moral relationships. Yet, Polanyi argues, every society always places some kind of institutional limit on what can be exchanged, prohibiting slavery but permitting prostitution, and so on. Polanyi also argues that the logic of the market society inevitably pushes back against these kinds of limits on individual bargaining. Ever the critic of capitalism, he likened the disembedding tendency of market society to selenic acid and nuclear weapons (Polanyi 1947). Yet his theory was, like Mauss's, always socialist in essence, arguing for instituted limits on individual self-interest, and the preservation of a sphere of public goods. Many of Polanyi's students went on to study nonmarket societies, and in their ethnographic works, one sees important early attempts to examine the interface between religion and economic domains. For them, questions of social change should be framed as a confrontation between the gift and the commodity, community and market, and indeed collective morality in a fundamentally Durkheimian sense against the selfish, amoral, individual market actor.

If Durkheimian sociology opposes religion and economy as collective and individual tendencies, the work of Max Weber, who approaches social analysis quite differently, places these two domains in a more complex relationship. Weber, like Durkheim, is one of a few Western thinkers who sought to establish new basis for studying society. Yet, unlike Durkheim, who sought universal laws, Weber argued social scientists should seek to understand society from an individual's perspective, and that social forms embodied different kinds of meaning for individuals who participated in them. In Weber's sociology, religion and economy play important, yet different, roles in setting the terms of social inquiry. Economic behavior and religious practice, for Weber, represent different types of social action, distinguishable by the motivations underlying them. Weber conceptualizes properly economic behavior as a rational means-ends calculation of individuals. In contrast to this kind of rationality, Weber finds a distinct form of meaning in religious thought, particularly the ascetic morality of what he calls “salvation religions,” such as Christianity and Islam (Weber 1946, 333). Salvation religions offer the possibility of redemption to those who commit themselves to a particular moral way of life. In these religions, the prophet is a central figure. The prophet calls on followers to reject the world—principally its mundane patterns and codes—and pursue a new, abstract goal. Whereas everyday life possesses meaning for people in the sense of regularity and stability, the charisma of prophecy offers an alternative way of locating meaning in action. Charisma draws people out of what they know and forces them to evaluate their own reasons for action; in other words, to define their selfhood in individual terms. One way this new kind of individual subjectivity can be expressed is in the renunciation of one's role in a social division of labor, becoming a Hindu ascetic, hermit or mendicant.

While renunciation of the mundane was a minor religious form in Christian cultures from very early on, Weber credits the Protestant reformation, and in particular the theology of John Calvin in the sixteenth century, led to a new kind of religious subjectivity in which a person is in the world but not of it, seeking their wealth yet above all seeing their worldly pursuits in relation to a divine calling, and treating material success not as blessing but as merely a sign of their election (Weber 1905). Yet Calvinist worldly asceticism did not need to win converts to change the way people saw themselves. Rather, Weber argues that as people started to change the way they related to the social and economic system, others began borrowing religious ideas as new sources of motivation for their own economic activity. Weber cites Ben Franklin's aphorisms, written as advice to a striving young men of modest backgrounds like himself, as evidence of the impact of worldly asceticism. “A penny saved is two pence clear” (Franklin 1737), and “Remember, that time is money” (Franklin 1748), among others, all posit an actor who rationally evaluates the most economical use of both money and time as resources. This actor is not necessarily dedicated to a religious calling, but is religiously devoted to earning profit through the ethic of “industry and frugality” (ibid.). In this way, economic forms borrow from the underlying rationalizing motivation of Calvinism while leaving aside its particular theory of salvation. When this new kind of individual subjectivity moves from the fervent creed of a few to institutional common sense, from charisma to routine, then effectively society itself has been transformed into something wholly new, modernity. One of the signal ideas of Western social theory, then starts from the problem of religion and economy, necessarily distinct forms of action, yet nevertheless always constantly interacting. For Weber, modern economic forms would not themselves be possible without an underlying basis in moral thinking.

This signal concept of modernity, especially as a telos of world history, though, has become a lightning rod. Every aspect of Weber's conceptual of modernity—its rationality, its secularism, and its basis in his methodological individualism—has been effectively rejected by contemporary social scientists. Speaking from the perspective of my own field, as an anthropologist interested in both religion and economic practices, two important developments have led to a rejection of the Weberian paradigm. First, in the wake of so-called world-systems theory and the debates around globalization, it is now generally accepted that we cannot seek to understand processes of social change at a purely local level, within one single, enclosed system. However the global scale of social life is conceptualized, scholars now tend to conceptualize both changes in livelihoods and changes in religious practice and community by linking them to global forces which play out differently and unequally as they move around the world and are translated into different local contexts. Second, Weber's prediction of secularization has been weakened if not entirely destroyed in light of the continuing importance and vitality of many different kinds of religious identity. For instance, at the close of twentieth century, many scholars of Islamic societies drew attention to what they termed a revival of Islamic piety. As Brenner (1996) argues in her study of veiling among young Javanese women, their overt piety was not so much a rejection of modernity, but indeed an alternative model, less oriented to the Western model, yet mainly rejecting their traditional village home in favor of an urban, educated and middle-class identity. Not only do scholars now recognize the continuing importance of religion to people's understanding of social and economic change, but many also point to the great variety of ways in which people configure the relationship between belief, practice and social identity. Mahmood (2005), examining a similar apparent revival among women in Egypt, argues that women's public piety draws on an alternative way of achieving an autonmous individual self through practical training as opposed to devotion to a calling. Thus, the failure of Weber's secularization thesis has raised the possibility of that modernity is not singular, but mutliple.

Indeed, the basic categories from which Weber builds a model of history as a process of rationalization have themselves come to be questioned. Take for instance a steel factory in Indonesia, now faced with a liberal global market in which it must compete (Rudnyckyj 2009). To train its workers in Franklin's creed of success, the managers hire a motivational speaker to present an Islamic model of professional achievement and responsibility. Weberian sociology looks for explanations of social phenomenon by asking how they appear from the individual's point view as an actor, and particularly, what meaning certain patterns of action have for the individual. In this light, religious values are always fundamentally distinct from other kinds of participation in society, like one's job. Weber's methodological individualism is perhaps one of the reasons why his thinking has influenced interpretive anthropologists like Clifford Geertz. For Geertz, religion can be defined in terms of its ideas and their relationship to the individual subject who adopts them as beliefs (1976). Responding to this approach, Asad (1983) argues that this way of thinking about religion has roots in Western liberalism, and more deeply in a Christian theological anthropology which defines the subject as a mind which can choose what it believes. Such an approach, Asad says, blinds one to religion's recruitment as part of an apparatus of power, as in the case of the Indonesian steel factory.

Others have argued the implicit secularism of Western social science itself leaves it incapable of understanding global Pentecostalism. In places as far flung as southern California, Sweden, Ghana and Zambia, for instance, Pentecostal Christians offer alms, seek deliverance from desire, pray for prosperity, and generally look for the presence of the Holy Spirit and the Devil in their economic conditions (Bialecki 2008; Coleman 2004; Meyer 1998; Haynes 2012). Both Weberian and Durkheimian approaches reduce the relationship to the sacred to an acquired mental state. By emphasizing the motivation derived from belief, Weberian and Durkheimian sociologies cannot comprehend these Pentecostal religious worlds, seeing them only as distortions of Western cultural forms by a magical form of religious thinking. Yet, as many have pointed out, this not only ignores Pentecostalism's popularity in many distinct cultural contexts, but assumes that the social conditions of these Pentecostals itself determines what they believe. They argue that these Christians locate their moral state in terms of their relationships rather than their private, individual choices, and seek religious truth in experience rather than abstract propositions.

Given this, social scientists have started to move away from a singular, essential conception of religion itself and approach religion through its interfaces with the material world, and especially through the economic life of the religious subject. In other words, although agents may wish to see their own morality in abstract terms, independently of particular situations and material conditions, these conditions themselves provide them with a symbolic language for their morality. For instance, in Japan, many consumers now seek out sleek, Scandanavian cabinets for storing memorial objects of deceased loved ones, called gendai butsudan (modern shrines) (Rambelli 2010; Nelson 2008). The owner of one such manufacturer hopes to sell his modernist shrines abroad, and make the Buddhist concept of kami (ancestor spirit) as well-known as sushi and sumo. The Malaysian government has for years promoted the Islamic banking sector, expressing both its commitment to an Islamic modernity and cementing ties to Middle Eastern states (Rudnyckyj 2014). Islamic financial practices are governed by Islamic legal theory, which determines whether forms of lending and investment exclude the earning of riba (interest), which is prohibited. Yet proponents see themselves not so much as restricting their individual gain as helping to create an alternative economy based on the productivity of labor and tangible assets, rather than speculation. In other words, Islamic finance is not simply finance as practiced by Muslims in compliance with Islamic law. Rather, practicing finance in compliance with Islamic law, among anyone, facilitates the dissemination of Islamic ethics. Increasingly, Western states and Western-based banks want to get in on the action, and raise money through Islamic markets. Pentecostal ideas in Ghana, also, spread through apparently secular channels of popular culture (Meyer 2004). Noirish tales of fallen women and gory spectacles of demons play on screens around the country, borrowing from and adding to the sensory experiences, and indeed pleasures, of Christian religious practice.

Arguably this approach is nothing more than a return to the Durkheimian concept of the sacred, which as an elementary form of religion, is basic to all societies. As such, one may wonder if the interface of religion and economy offers any special insight at all. In pursuing religion at the margins, and in the marketplace as opposed to the temple, one could say that we have simply gotten rid of religion as a category altogether. Yet this would be missing a crucial aspect of these contemporary examples and many others like them. People's attempts to collectively realize a particular moral and cosmological vision of the world, to communicate what they believe and how they see themselves, starts with an effort to classify the world into sacred and profane, and ultimately creates objects and situations which are both at the same time. Weber's concept of worldly asceticism is perhaps one such hybrid. His mistake, however, was two-fold: He thought it was a unique development, and he thought it resulted from rational application of moral ideas to material concerns. Rather we can now see that alongside his Calvinist entrepreneurs are many others, as many as there are devices for creating sacred spaces. These hybrids of religion and economy are important not for what ideas they represent, but what kinds of moral thinking they facilitate, and the ways in which they serve as sites at which people can recognize each other as moral subjects.


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