Religion and Civil Society

Our projects will address questions such as these through long-term fieldwork in local communities. Detailed ethnographic reporting is likely to go against the grain both of dogmatic powerholders who assert the primacy of a single "national church", and of the religious human rights lawyers with their unrealistic calls for the creation of a "level playing field" between every possible kind of religious community.
We use the term civil society in order to highlight our interest in how religious beliefs and practices resonate in society generally. How are social relations affected by changing religious dynamics, and vice-versa? These questions can be explored at all levels, beginning within the family and culminating in new ideologies of state and national identity.

Under socialism, religion in Georgia was effectively "domesticated" (Tamara Dragadze); as elsewhere in the Soviet Union, it played no role in the public sphere. Even before the collapse of socialism, the "liberalization" of the Gorbachev years facilitated a resurgence of Georgian Orthodox Christianity, closely associated with nationalist currents. In theory, the independent republic allows full religious freedom, but in practice minority churches are largely excluded from the public sphere. The former Soviet foreign minister Shevardnadze, then President of Georgia until October 2003, is the most prominent one-time communist to embrace the historic faith of his people.
Under socialism, religion in Georgia was effectively "domesticated" (Tamara Dragadze); as elsewhere in the Soviet Union, it played no role in the public sphere. Even before the collapse of socialism, the "liberalization" of the Gorbachev years facilitated a resurgence of Georgian Orthodox Christianity, closely associated with nationalist currents. In theory, the independent republic allows full religious freedom, but in practice minority churches are largely excluded from the public sphere. The former Soviet foreign minister Shevardnadze, then President of Georgia until October 2003, is the most prominent one-time communist to embrace the historic faith of his people.

By civil society we thus mean more than the currently fashionable usage, which associates it with the world of NGOs, or the "voluntary" or "third" sector. Rather, it seems time to return to earlier, pre-Hegelian usage, in which civil society does not stand in opposition to the state. One key element in the traditional meaning of civil is the element of tolerance (associated in particular with John Locke). We are interested, in the course of these projects, in establishing whether and how changing religious dynamics are contributing to greater civility and tolerance: not just of rival organized religious communities, but of other groups in society generally. What is the local understanding of tolerance?

In rural Kazakhstan the tying of votive rags at shrines and other sacred sites is a conspicuous sign of popular religion. The picture on the right shows a natural beauty spot where seven streams meet. There is no saintly tomb but the waters are believed to have healing power. Pilgrims pray there and most visitors take full baths.
In rural Kazakhstan the tying of votive rags at shrines and other sacred sites is a conspicuous sign of popular religion. The picture on the right shows a natural beauty spot where seven streams meet. There is no saintly tomb but the waters are believed to have healing power. Pilgrims pray there and most visitors take full baths.

As social scientists, it is not our job to evaluate the policies, activities and concrete human agents that we study. Our job is to describe them, to understand or interpret them, and also to explain as best as we can why things happen in the way they do. We do not expect to be drawing up policy recommendations at the end of these projects. We do, however, expect to come up with fresh anthropological accounts of the "postsocialist religious question", which we hope will also be of interest to many outside our discipline.
This focus theme consists of nine individual projects, listed separately on this website. They are divided into two main clusters, one working in Central Asia and the other in East-Central Europe. Within each of these clusters there are more specific links, intended to optimize comparative outcomes (e.g. between the two PhD students working on Greek Catholics). In addition we have a number of "affiliated projects", also listed separately elsewhere. Finally, we hope in the course of fieldwork in 2003-4 and during the analysis phase in 2004-5 to expand our contacts with other scholars working on similar issues; we are particularly keen to forge close links with scholars based in the countries where we work.

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