Religion and Regime
The sociologist Guy Swanson claims here to have explained the appearance of Protestantism, and why it took hold in some countries and not in others. An ambitious enterprise, which unfortunately does not make good on its claims. I say unfortunately, but there are some historians who will relish his failure; they would rather leave the Reformation a mystery than see it explained by a poacher from sociology. In their view, the historian deals with change and particular events, the sociologist with static phenomena and general patterns; and there is a barbed wire fence between the two fields. When the historian wants to find a “pattern” in the facts which he has painstakingly collected, he will consult his “reason” or “his understanding of the humanly possible” (I quote here G. R. Elton, who has written recently both on the Reformation and on the practice of history1 ). Somehow this understanding is unable to benefit from what sociologists or anthropologists have found about human behavior. Better that the historian trust his own safe knowledge of what is humanly possible.
This position is losing favor. Mr. Elton himself has become concerned over “the willingness of historians to worship the graven images set up by the sociologist.” More simply, historians are impressed by the relevance to their own work of quantitative studies on such matters as population growth and of concepts like “urbanization,” which offers wide possibilities for the analysis of a common feature of historical change. Using such tools does not prevent the historian from relating the “great or wonderful actions” of a particular group or country, the historian’s goal since Herodotus. Rather the tale should be a better one and the findings more amenable to historical generalization. Perhaps they will modify the models of the sociologists in turn.
Religion and Regime is the work not of a historian using sociological insights, but of a sociologist using historical materials. This, too, represents a current trend in sociology, one which increases enormously the range of cases available for the control of sociological theories. Clearly, the sociologist must be expected to work as carefully and imaginatively with historical sources as he should with current statistics, surveys, and computers. Charles Tilly’s study of the Vendée shows it can be done.
Religion and Regime thus appears at a moment when it can be judged without resort to the clichés of professional monopolies. The weaknesses of Mr. Swanson’s book will be taken as establishing, not that sociologists should leave the Reformation alone, but that historians should work with them so as to avoid the methodological disasters of Mr. Swanson’s solo effort: we must induce them to formulate their questions on Reformation Europe so they fit the conditions of the time; we must see that they identify and understand the kinds of data applicable to proving their case.
Mr. Swanson has written an important book even if it does not deliver the total explanation for Protestantism which it promises. It reminds us that anthropological and sociological studies of…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.