The Sacred in Current Social Sciences Research

By Righetti, Nicola | Italian Sociological Review, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Sacred in Current Social Sciences Research


Righetti, Nicola, Italian Sociological Review


Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of existing scientific research and theoretical studies concerning the category of the sacred. The essay takes an interdisciplinary point of view and covers the literature published in the years between 2000 and 2013.This review is theoretically oriented by an approach to the sacred that conceives it as an immanent character of social life that is not constrained by the boundaries of religious institutions. In the first part of the paper, we present this perspective through both classic and recent theories. In the second and third section, we discuss the most recent sociological, anthropological, psychological, neuroscientific, and evolutionary research concerning the sacred, organizing the information into two classic key issues: the sacred as a social and a moral cohesive force, and the sacred in its relation to power. We close the paper by providing some hints for future research in this area.

Keywords: sacred, social research, review.

Introduction

The aim of this paper is to offer an overview of the recent scientific literature about the sacred from a multidisciplinary perspective covering the years between 2000 and 2013.

To organize the literature on the subject, we first analyzed the most classical perspectives about the sacred in a preliminary study. We found that - although classic studies about the sacred in anthropology, sociology, and psychology date back to about one century ago, and the literature on the matter is countless - we could identify at least two main theoretical issues that are still relevant. The classic studies about the sacred, in fact -and mainly the sociological and anthropological ones started by the Durkheimian school (especially in relation to the moral value of the sacred) and those posed by Max Weber(regarding charismatic power) -trace two strands with which we can organize some of the latest research: the research strand about the moral and social cohesive function of the sacred, and the research strand about the relations between the sacred and power. These two general issues are analyzed in this paper in detail.

Our definition of the sacred goes beyond the realm of religion and the sociology of religion, expanding toward a more comprehensive perspective on society intended as a structure pervaded by sacrality. In the first section of the paper, we provide a theoretical account of the sacred from this perspective, considering both classic and some recent theoretical contributions from a multidisciplinary perspective.

Although we can only present some of the research strands about the sacred and only a few examples of the research on the subject within the limits of this paper, we are confident that this presentation could offer a useful overview of the current developments in research about the sacred in various scientific disciplines, which all contribute to the comprehension of the theme.

1. Defining the sacred. A theoretical framework in light of classical and recent contributions

1.1 A secular perspective on the sacred

The sacred is a classical but today almost neglected sociological category. Nevertheless, it could still be a useful category to interpret our culture and society because it identifies the core of social and cultural order, and some fundamental dynamics of their changes. Certainly, we have to conceive that contemporary societies are very complex, so they are clearly not understandable within only one interpretative category, as much as it goes to the core of many social processes. In fact, we know that social variables are countless, and their dynamic compositions need always to be considered in the context in which they appear. Due to this complexity, we consider the sacred as a fruitful category for sociological analysis.

The sacred can be defined in various ways. In the phenomenology of religions is the mysterium tremendum and fascinans, or numinous (Otto, 1936[1917]). …

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