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Differentiation Theory and the Sociology of Religion and Secularity

8 and 9 October 2020
Leipzig University

Convenors: Christoph Kleine (Leipzig University),  Daniel Witte (University of Bonn), Monika Wohlrab Sahr (Leipzig University)

Differentiation theory has always been closely related to the sociology of religion, both with regard to the historical development of societies and with respect to the genealogy of the theory itself. On the one hand, important contributions such as the ones of Weber and Bourdieu, for instance, were developed from the womb of their respective sociologies of religion. In Luhmann’s account, on the other hand, religion is likewise depicted as the first social system that differentiated from its environment historically. Further, this also connects to the other side of the secular-religious distinction, since – according to his theory – it was also the religious system that at first perceived its non-religious environment as ‘secular’, whereas it was only later that the religious-secular distinction became crucial from a perspective outside of religion. In a broader sense, differentiation theory also played an important (and more and more contested) role in the context of modernisation and secularisation theories. Modern societies – from that perspective – are inherently also functionally differentiated, and characterised to a greater or lesser extent by secularisation and the dominance of secular institutions. In short, while the theory of differentiation forms an integral component of modernisation theory, ‘secularisation’, in turn, arguably constitutes its most important special case.

Whereas, for a long time, the assumption of functional differentiation seemed a valid element in diagnoses of modernisation of secularisation, it became more and more contested over the course of the last years. It was first of all Talal Asad, but with him and independent from him many other scholars, not least from the field of the study of religion, who questioned either the applicability of differentiation theory to non-Western contexts, or criticised the concomitant interpretation of differentiation as a more or less autonomous process in the course of modernisation. However, criticisms related to differentiation diagnoses also came from the side of sociological theory. These criticisms aimed – among others – at differentiation theory’s lack of explanatory power, its inability to properly account for the role of social inequalities and conflicts, and its neglect of agency and carrier-groups (not least those that are considered crucial for processes of differentiation themselves).

We have invited scholars that have contributed to the discussion on differentiation theory in general, and on secularisation as well as on the religious-secular divide in specific, from different theoretical positions and with reference to different world regions.

The workshop is intended to discuss—in theoretical terms, but also based on historical and contemporary empirical examples, as well as in a global perspective—the merits and limits of differentiation theory for analysis in the realm of the sociology of religion and secularity. Contributions may address some of the following questions, among others:

  • What is the use, and what are the limits of differentiation theories for the analysis of historical processes?
  • What do we mean with ‘differentiation’ and how do we approach it theoretically?
  • How, if at all, can a theory of differentiation contribute to a better understanding of historical processes of the formation of social domains in non-Western societies that are categorised as either ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ in global modernity? (Or do macro-sociological theories of social differentiation presuppose modern Western logics of distinction that cannot be empirically verified outside Western modernity?)
  • How can we empirically and theoretically grasp the relationship between conceptualdistinctions as an element of epistemic structures and institutional differentiations as an element of social structures?
  • How may we balance the theoretical and empirical weaknesses of differentiation theory, what contributions could the sociology of religion, and secularities offer to it in reverse?
  • Is differentiation theory indeed to be blamed as a “dangerous process theory” as, for instance, Hans Joas (with reference to David Martin) put it? Moreover, if that is the case, is there a chance to liberate differentiation theory from the straight jacket of teleological presuppositions?

Download full workshop programme

Read detailed workshop report by Johannes Duschka


Thursday, 8 October

Seminargebäude, Room S 202 (Universitätsstraße, 04109 Leipzig)

14:00– 15:30

Monika Wohlrab-Sahr and Christoph Kleine (Directors of the  KFG "Multiple Secularities"): Welcome and Introduction

Moderation: Magnus Echtler (Leipzig University)


Thomas Kern (University of Bamberg): "Why We Need a Theory of Social Differentiation"

Hartmann Tyrell (Bielefeld University) / Raf Vanderstraeten (Universiteit Gent): "Some reflections on the uses of differentiation theory for the sociology of religion and secularity"

Moderation: Hubert Seiwert (Leipzig University)

17:45– 19:15

Sudipta Kaviraj (Columbia University): "Disenchantment and secularization"

Adrian Hermann (Bonn University): "Global History of Religion and Differentiation Theory"

Moderation: Nur Yasemin Ural (Leipzig University)


Concluding Remarks Day 1

Moderation: Nur Yasemin Ural (Leipzig University)

Friday, 9 October
Seminargebäude, Room S 202 (Universitätsstraße, 04109 Leipzig)


Gesa Lindemann (University of Oldenburg): "Religion and social differentiation"

Detlef Pollack (University of Münster): "The presumed origins of functional differentiation in Western Europe"

Moderation: Marian Burchardt (Leipzig University)


Sita Steckel (University of Münster): "Differentiation theory and historical secularities: A perspective from the European past"

Phil Gorski (Yale University): "Secularization of the World OR Fragmentation of the Sacred?"

Moderation: Florian Zemmin (Leipzig University)


Concluding Remarks Day 2

Moderation: Magnus Echtler (Leipzig University)