Researching Religion: Why We Need Social Science

Steve Bruce

Research output: Book/ReportBook

11 Citations (Scopus)


Basic questions about religion in the modern world (such as whether it is becoming more or less popular and who believes what) can be answered only with the perspectives and methods of social science. While the arts and humanities can help us understand religious beliefs and behaviour, only social science can provide us with the evidence that will allow us to discern and explain the social patterns, causes, and consequences of religious belief. Only through the statistical examination of big data can we be confident of what any case study represents. In a text described by one reviewer as ‘brilliantly accessible’, an internationally renowned sociologist addresses the major problems of theory and methods in the study of religion. Important topics in religious studies such as conversion, the relative durability of different types of religion and spirituality, and the social circumstances that strengthen or undermine shared beliefs are used to demonstrate the importance of social science and to address methodological issues such as bias, partisanship, and research ethics. Bruce presents a robust defence of a conventionally scientific view of value-neutral social science against its partisan and postmodern critics.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages256
ISBN (Print)9780198786580
Publication statusPublished - 6 Sept 2018

Bibliographical note

My working life has been spent in just two institutions: The Queen’s University of Belfast and the University of Aberdeen. I am hugely indebted to both for allowing me to teach in fields that intrigued me and for allowing me time to pursue my research interests. The University of Virginia, Charlottesville, and the University of Edinburgh hosted me during periods of research leave. At various times, my research has been supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Nuffield Foundation, the Leverhulme Trust, and the Carnegie Trust for the Scottish Universities. I am particularly grateful to the ESRC both for funding my research on loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland and for disguising the nature of that research.


  • social research
  • social science methods
  • researching religion
  • religious beliefs
  • religion
  • spirituality


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