January 9th, 2012

Tom O'Dea's Dysfunctions of Religion

The Dilemmas of Institutionalization

In later works, particularly his widely read The Sociology of Religion (Prentice Hall 1966), O'Dea expanded his initial analysis of institutional dilemmas within the Catholic Church by developing a more general explanation of the phenomena. By building upon and extending, among other influences, Troeltsch's study of church and sect, Weber's insights into the routinization of charisma, and Parsons's discussion of deinstitutionalization, O'Dea created a conceptual scheme for understanding the factors contributing to the functioning of, and change processes within, religious movements and organizations. In an example of middle-range sociological theory, O'Dea identified five dilemmas that were "structurally inherent" to religious institutionalization:

(1) Dilemma of mixed motivation . Over time, institutionalization tends to produce specialized offices and other roles. The originally religious goals, values, and motives of those involved in the organization, whether at the leadership or laity levels, may become more worldly. The organization is faced with the question of whether, and how, to adapt to this divergence in, and widening of, members' motives.

(2) Symbolic dilemma: Objectification versus alienation . The original sacred experience of transcendence must, if it is to be socially shared within a cohesive group, find expression through a collection of objectified symbols. With institutionalization, the sense of awe and power associated with sacred symbols and rituals may become routinized and the symbols themselves may become alienated from the believer.

(3) Dilemma of administrative order: Elaboration and alienation . Institutionalization tends to generate new demands that are usually met most efficiently through bureaucratic offices. Expansion of the bureaucracy typically follows, as does the potential for detachment or alienation of both the offices and the officeholders from the laity.

(4) Dilemma of delimitation: Concrete definition versus substitution of the letter for the spirit . In communicating and protecting the spirit of its religious insights, the organization is typically driven toward dogmatism, fundamentalism, and the establishment of specialized interpretive structures and processes. The scope and depth of the original religious message may become further reduced as a result of attempts to maintain its relevance for believers or through efforts aimed at attracting converts.

(5) Dilemma of power: Conversion versus coercion . During the early history of a religious movement or organization, individual believers usually demonstrate their faith and commitment to the emerging religion through an act of conversion. Through time, the institution, to maintain and even strengthen its status, tends to become more closely aligned with secular authorities and may draw upon the power of the state to support its goals. Doing so, however, raises the likelihood that membership in the religious body will be seen as mandatory, and increases the risk that protest groups may arise in response. The stronger ties to secular institutions may also foster cynicism and secularization among both the religious leadership and the laity.

Sociologists of various stripes have applied O'Dea's analysis of these structural dilemmas fairly widely,,,

Content Pages of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Social Science

O'Dea taught at the University of Utah and he was as interested in (and as sympathetic to) the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as he was in Catholicism.  I thought his "dilemmas" were drawn as much from Mormonism as from Catholicism.  He believed he had made a more general contribution to Sociology, i.e. his analysis applies to all institutions.  I think he was correct.  I assigned O'Dea whenever i taught "Institutions."

(edit: the above is a rather weak depiction of O'Dea's ideas.  The discussion in Sociology of Religion is quite
brief and well worth reading.)