by Sean McCloud
* This post is part of a new feature with the Bulletin called the Theory & Religion Series, where contributors are asked to discuss a book or essay by a particular theorist that they have found useful in their teaching and research in the study of religion.
“It is when the social world loses its character as a naturalized phenomenon that the question of the natural or conventional character of social facts can be raised.” Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice
When I think of writers who have influenced my thinking as someone who studies religion, Pierre Bourdieu immediately comes to mind. Works such as Pascalian Meditations and others have proven useful for examining how social classifications, hierarchies, and power are reproduced in the social world and how religions play a role in such reproductions. I have also found Bourdieu useful for thinking about what materialist theories of individual and social change might look like. But long before I had ever heard of Bourdieu, and long before I ever imagined going to college (let alone becoming a professor who studies religion) there was Gang of Four’s album, Entertainment!
Gang of Four, Natural’s not in it:
“Natural is not in it
Your relations are of power
We all have good intentions
But all with strings attached”
One of the many ideas at the heart of Bourdieu’s work is that the world in which we reside is filled with hierarchies and valuations that tend to be naturalized, made to appear as commonsense, the way things are. But they aren’t. For Bourdieu, “different class and class fractions are engaged in a specifically symbolic struggle to impose definitions of the social world most in conformity with their interests.” (Bourdieu 1977, “Symbolic Power”) I was primed for this idea by Gang of Four’s song, “Natural’s not in it.”
Gang of Four, Not great men:
But that wasn’t all I heard from Gang of Four that I would later read in elaborated versions in scholarly texts. In “Not Great Men,” they argued that the history books which fronted the “great men move history” theory of social change should be questioned. And in “Contract,” the singer laments that the perfect married life promised in Hollywood movies and newsstand periodicals may not actually exist.
Gang of Four, Contract:
“You dreamed of scenes like you read of in magazines
A new romance, a struggle in the bedroom
Is this really the way it is, or a contract in our mutual interest?”
As a fourteen year-old who lived in a community where I knew very few adults who had university degrees (the exception being teachers), Gang of Four’s Entertainment! was my first introduction to what sometimes gets called “critical theory.” It offered me a hermeneutics of suspicion with a tight beat, driving bass, choppy angular guitar, and chanted repetitive lines. It made the ideas I would later encounter in scholars such as Pierre Bourdieu, Stuart Hall, and others already somewhat familiar. To this day, I still read, write, and research with the ghost of Gang of Four’s Entertainment! playing over my shoulder.
Sean McCloud is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies (and American Studies and Communication Studies Faculty Affiliate) at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He teaches, publishes, and researches in the fields of American religions and religion and culture. His publications include Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955-1993 (2004), Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies (2007), and he is co-editor of Religion and Class in America: Culture, History, and Politics (2009). His next book, American Possessions: Fighting Demons in the Contemporary United States, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in spring 2015.