Social Similarity & Faith

I’ve been thinking a lot about social similarity lately, and maybe you have too (uh, yes, that was a joke). In many ways, social life is structured by similar people finding and interacting with each other. Sociologists call this homophily. This tendency of birds of a feather flocking together has been observed with many socially-relevant characteristics, including gender, social class, age, race, occupation and, of course, religion. As a result of it, we tend to spend more time with people who are similar to us than otherwise.

It’s not just that we that we like people who are more similar to us, but in addition, we become more like people who we like. We mimic how they posture themselves, and that in turn makes us more likable to them. (For a strategic application of this).

So… what are the implications of this for the practice of Christianity? Undoubtedly, it’s the reason we observe so much homogeneity within congregations. For example, churches tend to be segregated by race, with people of a particular racial and ethnic group congregating in a particular church. (This trend is changing over time, but it still manifests itself strongly). Even if a church is racially diverse, it will probably be economically homogenous.

Even within churches, we seek out people like us–by age, education, and other social characteristics.

Is this tendency to seek out and bond with similar others a good thing, bad thing, or neutral, from a Christian perspective that is. At this point, I would probably lean toward neutral. On one hand, it presents challenges in terms of diversity–for racially-diverse (and, really, just about anything-diverse) churches are difficult to maintain, especially when they are small. On the other hand, homophily creates strong social networks along which information and assistance can be passed.

This tension, between embracing diversity and taking advantage of similarity, shows itself with how churches and para-churches seek to grow. I know of a college ministry who organize their outreach efforts by race and ethnicity–with meetings specially targeting members of different racial and ethnic groups. The trick then, I suppose, is getting these different groups to interact as a whole. This type of approach–seeking homogeneity at smaller levels of organization and diversity at larger levels is one way of trying to get the best of both.

Perhaps simply being aware of the presence and power of homophily is important for all religious organizations.

Update on the Regnerus situation

Here’s an update on the brouhaha over Mark Regnerus’ study. As it should have, the complaint against Regnerus to the University of Texas was ruled to be without merit.

Here’s the opening paragraphs of the article:

“No formal investigation is warranted regarding allegations of scientific misconduct against a faculty member’s study that raised doubts about gay parenting, the University of Texas announced today.

The university conducted an inquiry to determine whether the accusations against associate professor Mark Regnerus concerning an article of his in the journal Social Science Research had merit and warranted a formal investigation. The allegations were leveled by freelance writer Scott Rosensweig, who uses the byline Scott Rose.

After consulting with a four-member advisory panel composed of senior university faculty members, the Office of the Vice President for Research concluded that there is insufficient evidence to warrant an investigation, the university said in a news release.

Provost and Executive Vice President Steven Leslie accepted the report on Tuesday and deemed the matter closed from an institutional perspective, UT said.”

The Case of Mark Regnerus: An Academic Auto-da-Fé

Here’s an insightful op-ed piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Christian Smith, of Notre Dame, about the reaction to Mark Regnerus’ study of same

(By the way, an Auto-da-Fe was the ritual of public penance of condemned heretics in the Spanish Inquisition–an apt analogy for this situation)

“Whoever said inquisitions and witch hunts were things of the past? A big one is going on now. The sociologist Mark Regnerus, at the University of Texas at Austin, is being smeared in the media and subjected to an inquiry by his university over allegations of scientific misconduct.

Regnerus’s offense? His article in the July 2012 issue of Social Science Researchreported that adult children of parents who had same-sex romantic relationships, including same-sex couples as parents, have more emotional and social problems than do adult children of heterosexual parents with intact marriages. That’s it. Regnerus published ideologically unpopular research results on the contentious matter of same-sex relationships. And now he is being made to pay.

In today’s political climate, and particularly in the discipline of sociology—dominated as it is by a progressive orthodoxy—what Regnerus did is unacceptable. It makes him a heretic, a traitor—and so he must be thrown under the bus.

Regnerus’s study was based on a nationally representative sample of adult Americans, including an adequate number of respondents who had parents with same-sex relationships to make valid statistical comparisons. His data were collected by a survey firm that conducts top studies, such as the American National Election Survey, which is supported by the National Science Foundation. His sample was a clear improvement over those used by most previous studies on this topic.

Regnerus was trained in one of the best graduate programs in the country and was a postdoctoral fellow under an internationally renowned scholar of family, Glen Elder, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Full disclosure: I was on the faculty in Regnerus’s department and advised him for some years, but was not his dissertation chair.) His article underwent peer review, and the journal’s editor stands behind it. Regnerus also acknowledges the limitations of his study in his article, as he has done in subsequent interviews. And another recent study relying on a nationally representative sample also suggests that children of same-sex parents differ from children from intact, heterosexual marriages.

But never mind that. None of it matters. Advocacy groups and academics who support gay marriage view Regnerus’s findings as threatening. (As an aside, that is unnecessary, since his findings can be interpreted to support legal same-sex marriage, as a way to counter the family instability that helps produce the emotional and social problems Regnerus and others have found.)

Regnerus has been attacked by sociologists all around the country, including some from his own department. He has been vilified by journalists who obviously (based on what they write) understand little about social-science research. And the journal in which Regnerus published his article has been the target of a pressure campaign.

The Regnerus case needs to be understood in a larger context. Sociologists tend to be political and cultural liberals, leftists, and progressives. That itself is not a problem, in my view. (I am not a conservative.) A critical progressive outlook is part of sociology’s character and contribution to the world, making it an interesting and often useful discipline, especially when it comes to understanding poverty and inequality, determining whether social policies are effective, and establishing why education systems succeed and fail. But the ideological and political proclivities of some sociologists can create real problems.

Many sociologists view higher education as the perfect gig, a way to be paid to engage in “consciousness raising” through teaching, research, and publishing—at the expense of taxpayers, donors, and tuition-paying parents, many of whom thoughtfully believe that what those sociologists are pushing is wrong.”

To read the rest…

Map of religion in the United States

Here’s an interesting map that shows the largest religious groups for each county in the United States. As always, I’m surprised at the geographical concentrations of different denominations and traditions which points to the rich social history that produced religion in the US.


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