Functionalism or Fallacy: Re-Locating Hans Mol's Identity Theory

By Powell, Adam J. | Italian Sociological Review, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Functionalism or Fallacy: Re-Locating Hans Mol's Identity Theory


Powell, Adam J., Italian Sociological Review


Richard Nice ends his foreword to the English edition of Pierre Bourdieu's Outline of a Theory of Practice with sobering words for ambitious social theoreticians: 'The fact remains that a text which seeks to break out of a scheme of thought as deeply embedded as the opposition between subjectivism and objectivism is fated to be perceived through the categories which it seeks to transcend, and to appear contradictory or eclectic (except when forcibly reduced to one or the other alternative)' (Nice, 1977: viii).

Indeed, Nice's observation rightly illuminates the hazardous road of scholarly advance, a path chosen by many but fruitfully navigated by relatively few. Arguably one of the latter, Bourdieu mined the shortcomings of previous perspectives and offered an original take on the relationship between an individual agent and his or her social structure. We will say more about Bourdieu's system later, but our primary concern in the following pages is to suggest that Mol bravely embarked on a similar journey. With the publication of numerous essays and monographs in the 1960s and 70s, culminating in the composition of Identity and the Sacred (1976), Mol adumbrated a general sociological theory of religion which would prove difficult to categorise. In many ways, his theoretical contribution did seek 'to break out of the existing dualism between 'subjectivism and objectivism' in the social sciences. More importantly, Mol proposed a frame of reference that sought to highlight social integration without being 'functionalist' and to recognise the potential tensions between modern social institutions without being a 'conflict theory'. Of course, just as Nice's prophetic words indicate, Mol's work was assessed through the very lenses that he hoped to discard.

Although the historical record denies us a clear consensus from the academic community, the most common (and typically dismissive) response to Mol's identity theory was to denounce its ostensible functionalist reductionism. In other words, the assertions and aspirations of Mol's theoretical contributions were 'reduced to one.. .alternative.' Mol (1979), of course, vehemently and explicitly denied such a description. Now, benefitting not only from retrospect but also from a new set of conceptual tools and sociological idioms, we are perhaps better equipped to investigate the place of Mol's identity theory in the mid-20th century landscape of the sociology of religion. An undeniably fecund period for the social-scientific study of religion, the middle decades of the 20th century offered influential neofunctionalist perspectives from figures such as Talcott Parsons and Peter Berger, but the era was also one of innovation and expanding disciplinary boundaries.

Our paper begins by drafting a portrait of Mol's theoretical agenda and intellectual ambitions before turning to an exploration of the web of contemporaneous theoretical notions cast over the field of sociology during the 20th century - in particular, the theories produced by a small number of enigmatic social scientists which eluded straightforward classification. Ultimately, we turn to Mol's critics and their efforts to classify his offerings, illuminating an important question for the history of ideas as it pertains to the sociological study of religion: was the identity theory of Hans Mol simply another functionalist argument for the integrative role of religion in society or is it possible that such criticisms are the fallacious (though, perhaps inevitable) consequences of inadequate classificatory schemes available to scholars of religion during the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s?

1.Identity and ambition

Among the papers left behind at McMaster University, when Mol retired in 1987, were three pages of handwritten notes outlining a new book2. Squirrel in Quicksand: In Defence of Orthodoxy by a Christian Sociologist was never written nor published, but its title is both intriguing and instructive. According to the notes, the volume would begin with the telling of an anecdote concerning a heavy-machinery operator stuck in quicksand. …

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