Class profile: Sociology of Religion engages students with research

Religion, in one form or another, has been a part of human life for as long as humans have been on this planet.

Sociology of Religion, a class taught by Steve Derne of the sociology department, looks at the interplay between the society and religion by examining rituals and changes in attitudes toward religion over time. Students gain a better understanding of religion by reading sociological literature, but the hallmark exercise of the class is a research paper that extends throughout the term.

The term paper may scare some students away – Derne said that a good number of students drop the class after reading its syllabus.

"In reality, when it comes time for students to actually start working on their project, the biggest problem I have is students being too ambitious in their scope," Derne said, adding that he often has to convince students that more modest research goals are the most effective.

Students who have completed the course in prior semesters have produced some truly interesting work. Sophomore Joel Inbody will be presenting a paper about the role of physical body experiences in the generation of various religious convictions at a conference in Santa Fe, N.M. in April. Another of Derne's former students, junior Nora McGlynn, will present her research on status reversal rituals in the antebellum south at this year's G.R.E.A.T. Day.

Students sometimes use personal experiences as a starting point for their research. In other cases, they take a particular interest in a course text and try to shape that interest into original research. Many more topics simply come from gaps in the sociological literature. Often, gaps in the class research leave room for new exploratory projects.

Derne said that he hopes students find the research part of the class engaging. "What I really want to do is show them the excitement of contributing to sociological knowledge," he said, adding that a big part of research involves simply finding an interesting topic, reading about it and then using that knowledge to discover new areas of interest.

"I like the fact that the class is an open forum for discussion," said sophomore Andrew Blizard. "It teaches about religion at both a societal and personal level."

Sociology of Religion fulfills the general education social science requirement and is open to all students regardless of major. The course is a great way to fill out a semester if you are interested in sociological research or simply curious about how religion shapes and is influenced by society.