Mapping the Big Picture
MAPS ARE GREAT for providing a big picture sense of the proportions and contours of the spaces that we occupy. Maps help us to understand the geography through which we move, so that we know where we stand in the world and what the world is like beyond our immediate field of vision. Maps do this by simplifying relevant features of the actual world we live in with visual symbols, such as lines, colors, dots, and shapes depicting roads, rivers, cities, and altitudes. Sociological research can also descriptively map the contours and proportions of social life by simplifying features of the social world relevant to a particular interest and representing them with symbols. But instead of using lines, colors, and dots for its symbolic representations, sociological research often uses numbers—such as frequencies, percentages, averages—to represent through numeric abstraction the social world's dimensions and qualities. All such descriptions oversimplify the complexity of the real social world in which we live. And maps as abstractions are never as interesting as, say, personal stories. But, as with maps generally, such simplified descriptions can help to provide an overarching sense of our social world, where we stand within it, and what it looks like beyond our immediate field of vision.
In this chapter, we descriptively map the world of contemporary U.S. adolescent religion and spirituality by presenting statistical findings from the National Survey of Youth and Religion. Following chapters explore some of the cultural meanings, textures, and complexities of U.S. adolescent faith. But before getting to such meanings and complexities, we outline some of the