Penny Edgell

About Me

Director of Graduate Studies
Department of Sociology
University of Minnesota

sociologists on strike.jpg
For a complete list of publications, see my current curriculum vitae.

Established Projects & Problems

New Approaches to the Study of Religion

A growing body of empirical studies, conducted over the past decade or two approach the study of religion from a cultural perspective that centers the expressive and institutional aspects of religious individuals, practices, communities, and organizations. Here you will find a draft of my article prepared for the 2012 Annual Review of Sociology, which describes this work. To reach its potential for reinvigorating our theoretical understanding of religion as a social phenomenon, the cultural approach needs to be named and its consequences, including a research agenda, need to be articulated. My aim is to provide a critical review of a body of work that is re-invigorating the study of religion and broadening it significantly, orienting it to a new set of analytical principles, core concepts, and questions, and broadening the audience for studies of religion within and beyond the discipline. Taken together, this newer work provides a generative approach to the study of religion that transcends the secularization/market divide that characterizes the current theoretical state of the field and avoids some of the problems associated with older approaches.

Religion, Diversity, and Moral Order in the U.S..

I have worked on the American Mosaic project, a study of how racial and religious identities influence conceptions of citizenship and American identity with colleagues Joseph Gerteis and Douglas Hartmann. You can read about one of our papers -- a study of Americans' attitudes toward atheists -- in the Star Tribune or in Newsweek or The Wilson Quaterly.

Recently, there was an interesting article in Science about religions and the origins of pro-social behavior that cited our AMP work. Check it out here.

And here are links to recent publications from this research:

"Shared Visions" with Eric Tranby, Social Problems 2010.pdf

Attitudes Towards Atheists Paper ASR Mar06.pdf

Religion and Racial Attitudes with Eric Tranby, Social Problems 2007

Religion and Family

Several years ago I conducted a study of the religious ecologies of several upstate New York communities. I wanted to understand how congregations have adapted to changes in work and family. What model of "the family"? are congregations organized around? What moral discourses about family life do they promote? How do religious institutions fit - or not fit - with contemporary men's and women's lives after a period of rapid social change in work and family?

More recently, I have extended this research through a national telephone survey, the National Survey of Religion and Family Life. Publications from this research are in process, and include a paper on religion and emotional support, and two papers on religious influences on perceptions of work-family conflict and work-family sufficiency. Early findings can be found here and here.

Click here to read an interview transcript describing this research; the interview was used as background for two episodes of Religion and Ethics Newsweekly (Oct. 28 and Nov. 18, 2005.) You can also listen to an interview given on Midmorning with Kerri Miller (Dec. 29, 2005), or read about this work in CLA Today or the Star Tribune.

Publications from this research include Religion and Family in a Changing Society, 2005, Princeton University Press. You can also see my article with Danielle Docka in Sociological Forum, or my article with Samantha Ammons in Journal of Family Issues.

More generally, I continue to be interested in the intersections of family, gender, and work, including how these fit together for "emerging adults" (Americans under 35).

New and In Process

"Nones," "Alts," and Others: Moral Order outside the Religious Mainstream

The association between religion and moral order is empirically strong, and formative theoretical treatments dating from the founding of sociology as a discipline view religion, moral order, and solidarity as fundamentally intertwined. As a result, social scientists sometimes conflate mainstream religious involvement with morality and good citizenship. But is this theoretical understanding of the link between mainstream religious institutions and moral order adequate for understanding the contemporary social context?

Today, fully 16% of American adults (about 35 million people) claim no mainstream religious identity, and up to a quarter (about 58 million) express their spirituality through "alternative" religious practices like holistic healing, meditation, spiritualism, or pagan/magical/occult practice. Both trends are strong, upward, and concentrated among the young.

I am developing proposals for both a national study and local (Minnesota-based) research, using qualitative methods, to understand the moral formation of religious "nones" and "alts" (those engaging in alternative religious practices). With colleagues here and across the country, I will analyze the discourses and cultural schema shaping the moral habitus (deep-seated, embodied knowledge and habits) of members of these groups, the moral communities in which they participate, and the how they construct shared moral orders. We anticipate a follow-up national random-sample telephone survey of Americans outside the religious mainstream.

Religion, Science, and the Law: How Americans Understand Expert Claims Regarding Contemporary Social Controversies

With my colleague, Kathy Hull, I am developing the proposal for a research project that will use focus groups & interviews with "ordinary" citizens, to address two primary research questions:

  • How do Americans evaluate the legitimacy and adequacy of the claims made by religious, scientific, and legal elites regarding contemporary social controversies?

  • How does religious identity shape how Americans understand the controversies and what solutions they propose?

Contemporary American society faces a vexing array of social controversies in which religious, legal, and scientific elites make competing claims, leading to high-profile media coverage, policy debates, and court battles. We will present focus groups with vignettes that describe specific social controversies in which religious, legal, and scientific experts have made contested public pronouncements: examples include gay adoption, parental refusal of medical treatment due to religious belief, and genetic screening of human embryos. Focus groups will include participants from a representative range of religious backgrounds, including secular Americans and those who identify primarily as "spiritual."

Some sociologists have advocated a culture-wars perspective on social controversies, emphasizing "epistemological conflict" between liberals and conservatives. This perspective often highlights the role of religious conservatives in the public sphere. However, other scholars conceptualize religion, science, and the law as "cultural repertoires" that are not necessarily or logically in conflict. To date there is no national study that systematically compares the responses of people from a range of religious backgrounds to a variety of social controversies in order to determine which theoretical perspective provides the more powerful explanation for how ordinary Americans view such controversies and how they evaluate legal, scientific, and religious expertise.

Our long-term goal is to understand how ordinary citizens respond to elite discourses on a range of social issues, and generate a more powerful theoretical framework for understanding the nature of religious, scientific, and legal authority in late modern society.