What is “Positive” Sociology?

Last week, Margarita has a very interesting post about positive psychology and it’s implications for sociology.

For some time now, I’ve been wondering about what it would look like to focus on the positive in social life and how to attain it. In other words, is there a sociological corollary to positive psychology?

Let’s start with something simple, what would such a study be called? It might be awkward to call it positive sociology because that’s awfully close to positivism. Furthermore, sociology covers so much ground that it’s unclear how we translate it into a single, positively focused endeavor for some of us who are looking for something other than social problems.

Maybe the sociology of well-being? Of a good life? Of highly-functioning groups and organizations? Maybe the sociology of the-opposite-of-social-problems?

Any thoughts?

Map of Religious Diversity in America

Yet another interesting map from the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. This gets at how varied, or diverse, religious affiliation is in different regions of the country. As you can see, the areas with the most diversity also tend to have the lowest rates of adherence, which would seem counter-intuitive–at least from the perspective of Rational Choice theory. One might expect that more offerings, i.e., more types of religions, would promote greater involvement in religion.

Where the Protestants Roam: Map of Protestant Denominations in the US

Protestantism, and its decline, has been in the news a lot this week with a Pew study that the percentage of Protestants in the US has fallen below 50%.

Seemed like a good time to show a map of the distribution of Protestant denominations throughout the country. This map is from the always interesting Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, and it highlights the strong regional flavor of Protestantism. (Click to make font more readable. Also, it’s mislabeled as Protestant “Groups” because it doesn’t show non-denominational Protestants.)

Like so much in America social geography, religion went from East to West until the Rockies, and what happened on the West coast is a bit of a jumble. It also speaks to the historical influence of Methodists, who have probably lost more of the population in the last century than any other religious group.


Why we overestimate the prevalence of abusive priests, dishonest pastors, and unloving congregations

Cognitive heuristics are mental shortcuts–rules of thumbs–that we use to make judgments about ourselves and the world around us. On of the best known heuristics is the “availability heuristic” that goes as follows. As we estimate the frequency with which something happens, we start by trying to think of an example of it, and if we can quickly think of an example then we think it’s a frequent occurrence.

Like most heuristics, it works well often, but it produces biases in some forms of social thinking. In particular, it highlights the potential for the media to distort our understanding about the probability of events.

You see, the media focuses on what’s uncommon or at least unexpected, and understandably so for who would want to read, hear, or watch information that is totally predicable? (“Next on the grass growing channel….”). As a result, however, the media gives us vivid portrayals of what rarely happens, and we then overestimate the frequency with which they happen.

Easy example. The verbal gaffes of presidential candidates are big news, so we can easily assume that they make them often when, in point of fact, they might be relatively rare. (At least a lot less frequent than mine).

Now, let’s apply this type of thinking to portrayals of religious figures.

What makes news about religious people? Various things, of course, but in particular when they do not act in alignment with their beliefs. We all love a good, juicy “hypocrite” story after all. So, a priest abusing a child or a pastor stealing from his flock or whatever the religious scandal of the day is makes such information much more available when we recall it. This leads us to think that it happens more often than it does.

Case in point. In my Sociology of Christianity class, I have my students visit local churches and analyze the services from the perspective of various sociological theories. Their papers on their experiences nearly unanimously describe the congregants that they met as friendly and warm to them, and there’s an undertone of surprise. Why shouldn’t there be, after all, because congregations make news most often when they do shocking things like protesting military funerals or burning a copy of the Koran. Peaceful, loving Christians are the rule in both their frequency and lack of newsworthiness, and as a result–due to the availability heuristic–we underestimate their prevalence.