Configurations of Values
Religion as Relation - Studying Religion in Context - Peter Berger
Peter Berger [+]
University of Groningen
Central to public debates about commonalities and differences between citizens of different religious and cultural backgrounds is the compatibility of cultural values and the norms through which these values are actualized. Values, and changes in value systems, are the central theme in Chapter 14 of this volume, in which Peter Berger discusses a specific strand of structural anthropology that he emphasizes can be useful in the analysis of both empirical and historical data: the theory of value as developed by Louis Dumont, which has its roots in Durkheim’s sociology of religion. Berger begins by contextualizing Dumont’s theory in the history of the discipline of anthropology by outlining the main features of Dumont’s analytical framework and how it has been developed by Joel Robbins. He sketches how Dumont, informed by his Indological and anthropological research on the Hindu caste system, developed a general theory of hierarchy, the latter being just the other side of the coin of value (as posing a value introduces hierarchy). While Lévi-Strauss was mainly concerned with binary oppositions in cultural structures, Dumont argued that relationships between ideas are hierarchical. Left and right, for instance, are not simply opposites but stand in a hierarchical relation. When taking an oath or shaking hands after making an agreement, only the right hand is appropriate because it stands for the whole person. Dumont discussed the various properties of value and added the concepts of “context” and “level” in order to account for a dynamic relationship between ideas and values within a certain framework he called ideology. Joel Robbins further developed the dynamic potential in Dumont’s theory in explaining processes of change and globalization. In line with Mason’s argument that the label of “religion” as a universal cultural category often obfuscates more than it illuminates outside the Western world, the author demonstrates that the theory of value as developed by Dumont and Robbins provides an important perspective from which to study religion, precisely because it does not depend on “religion” as a privileged analytical concept or domain.