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Societal Structure

Societal Structure


This lesson will provide information on how religion has influence on societal structure.

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Welcome to this tutorial on societal structure. Religions can work to increase the mobility of groups within society, or it can work to mitigate against social mobility. Some religious groups may have a higher status, and other religious groups may have a lower status, in various societies around the world. So sociologists of religion have tried to quantify and analyze the ways that religious affiliation can affect standing in society.

So we can say that there are certainly feedback loops between religion and inequality. But in retrospect, it may be difficult to tell whether a group is marginalized because of their religion, or whether they have chosen a particular religious affiliation because they are marginalized. So there's a sort of chicken and egg problem here.

Niebuhr, in the book Social Sources of Denominationalism, looked at what he called sectarian groups and those he called church-like groups. The sectarian groups tended to be of lower status. They tended to have a really pure rigid theology. In their church services, they tended to emphasize religion as relief of suffering. And they tended to have a high degree of tension with the surrounding society. This high tension means that they saw themselves as in conflict with the larger society. They saw themselves as running counter to the tendencies of society.

Church-like groups, however, tended to have higher status. They tended to have a professional clergy. Their theologies tended to legitimize the wealth that they had gained. In other words, these people saw themselves as the elect, who are deserving of their wealth. And they had a lower degree of tension with the surrounding society.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Catholics and evangelicals were generally lower status in America. But by the end of the century, that gap had almost completely disappeared. And perhaps this is because these groups were successful in being able to overcome the barriers to success in society.

We can take a look now at some examples from around the world. In Latin America today, for example, it is still very easy to measure the inequality that persists between those who are descended from the conquistadors in the 15th century and those who have indigenous heritage. In fact, all around the world, indigenous groups who were persecuted during the colonial period are still marginalized today. So, the Roman Catholic religion was used as a justification for persecuting those indigenous groups.

In India-- it is now illegal in India to discriminate based on caste. There have been a lot of reforms, but inequality still persists between the various castes and between people who belong to scheduled castes and the so-called untouchables, or dalits, in India.

In the Middle East-- one of the reasons why the prophet had to fight battles in the name of Islam is because Islam threatened the tribal system. The very wealthy tribes didn't want to give up their hold on power. And Islam was successful in reducing some of those inequalities.

So far we've said that sociologists of religion attempt to understand how religion can increase or discrease social mobility and social inequality. We gave examples of the United States in the denominational system within Christianity, where some denominations were favored by the poor, because they emphasized high tension with the society and gave the poor way to understand their suffering and to rise above it. We gave examples from around the world. In Latin America, inequality stemming from the colonial period. India, inequality stemming from the caste system. And the Middle East, where Islam was successful in reducing the inequality of the tribal system.

We have two vocabulary terms for this lesson. The caste system is a social system in which one's place in society is determined by one's birth, often by the social status of one's parents. So in India there are four main castes and also the untouchable casteless people. And the other term is equality-- the state of being equal or the treatment of all persons in the same way under the law. So there's also legal concepts of equality. But we all know that just having legal equality doesn't necessarily lead to equality in practice.

Terms to Know
Caste System

A social system in which one's place in society is determined by one's birth, often via the social status of one's parents.


The practice of militarily powerful nations' taking military and political control of another nation, state, territory, or unsettled land.


The state of being equal; the treatment of all persons in the same way under the law.