Faculty Spotlight: Penny Edgell
By Sara-Jo Kriedeman
In this issue, the faculty spotlight shines on Penny Edgell, professor of sociology, and a member of the Religious Studies steering committee. Edgell received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1995, and came to the University of Minnesota in 2002. As a sociologist, Edgell's research focuses on American religion and she is particularly interested in related topics such as gender roles, family, social change, and moral culture. Her publications on these issues are numerous, including a recent chapter for The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion and the books Religion and Family in a Changing Society and Congregations in Conflict: Cultural Models of Local Religious Life.
The American Mosaic Project
Professor Edgell is currently wrapping up an exciting, three-year project that examined the views of race and religious diversity in America. Edgell and her team designed the American Mosaic Project hoping to discover more about the things that bring Americans together and what divides them, asking questions such as, Do Americans believe religious diversity is important for a "good" society? What do Americans believe are the consequences of religious and racial diversity? Edgell and her colleagues polled people across the nation to find out their attitudes about these issues. Some of the results were quite surprising. Edgell found that a substantial portion of Americans maintain that in order to be a good citizen you must share in a Christian cultural heritage. "National identity is still culturally understood in the U.S. as being Christian in deeply rooted ways, and I think a lot of our scholarly talk about religious diversity and tolerance misses this," she explains. "Much of that scholarship tends to dismiss Christian nation rhetoric and say, 'Well that doesn't really mean anything. Everyone knows we're not really a Christian nation.' I think what we have shown in our work is that it means a lot." Edgell and her team also discovered that Americans seem to have more concerns about religion as a potential source of division than previous scholarship has emphasized. "We've tended as a discipline to emphasize those pro-social implications of religious involvement," says Edgell. "But I think what we found is that there are widespread concerns in the U.S. about the potential for religion to become a divisive or discriminatory thing in our society."
Professor Edgell hopes to begin a new project this year working with sociology colleague Kathleen Hull. Still in proposal stage, the project would explore the relationship between religious belief and the formation of scientific and legal consciousness. "We are picking issues that are controversial, and those which experts have made claims about the way forward," Edgell explains, regarding issues such as a parent's right to refuse medical treatment for their child. "We want to present these issues to ordinary people and see how they evaluate these expert claims. This is a way to see how religion influences the legitimacy of legal experts, scientific experts, and religious leaders." She continues, "There are authorities out there who make these decisions which affect us all. Is that legitimate with people? But the other part of it, to me the more interesting part, is do people, everyday people, even understand the issues that are going on in the same way that these experts do? We want to see how religious beliefs influence this."
On the Study of Religion
As a scholar of sociology and religion, Professor Edgell stresses the importance of the study of religion. "I think it is important to have an academic voice describing religious practice and religious communities," Edgell explains. "I think so much of the popular discourse today is either from an insider perspective, or it is hostile. Religion is very politicized, and to have a voice out there describing religion that is not politicized and is more neutral than objective is useful in terms of producing public knowledge about what religious people and communities are like." Furthermore, Edgell adds, "Religion is a powerful institution. It affects people's behavior in their public life, but it also affects social capital in local communities, civic orientation, and it shapes our understanding of nationalism and American identity. I think it's an institution that we all as citizens need to understand and I think that good academic research can help us understand that in a way that is different then, say, if Rick Warren or Richard Dawkins speak out on it. I have no committed position, which is useful." For more information on the American Mosaic Project visit www.soc.umn.edu/research/amp.html.