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  • Religious [Re]Sources of the Self: Popular Religion andModern Identity in Metropolitan Mexico


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Religious [Re]Sources of the Self: Popular Religion and Modern Identity in Metropolitan Mexico

Pentecostals, Presbyterians, interdenominational Evangelicals; traditional, charismatic, post-Conciliar and left-wing liberationist Catholics; Santa Muerte and Santería These are some of the many faces of religious life in the neighborhood of “El Ajusco” in Mexico City. Rather than addressing the individual particularities of these groups, my project explores the effects of plurality in this dense field of religious praxis. The main focus lies on forms of individuation specific to the popular religiosity of underprivileged classes. I argue that such forms of individuation have remained largely unacknowledged by a sociology of religion oblivious to the deep flaws of individualization theories.
Thus, the empirical analysis presented in this dissertation gives rise to a much more far- reaching theoretical problem, which in turn emerges from the gap between prevailing research on religious individualization, on the one hand, and research on popular religion among deprived classes, on the other. In the first case, religious individualization typically appears in the guise of privatized, unchurched forms of faith. They presuppose the availability of free floating symbolic resources for the composition at call of religious identities (spirituality, pastiche / patchwork religion, etc.). Also, as it seems, these forms of faith are almost exclusively practiced by the accommodated middle classes of post- industrial societies (and this of course corresponds to what has been claimed to be the social locus of late modern individualization in general). Thus, presumably, late modern conditions have set free a particularly reflexive subjectivity, opening a vast laboratory where the quest for a spirituality in line with a biographical project of self-realization is possible. In the second case, there are the forms of religious life practiced by the subaltern actors who this project draws attention to. These are highly pluralized forms of popular religiosity prevalent among the underprivileged inhabitants of the metropolitan conglomerates in Latin America (and elsewhere in the Global South). These forms have usually been analyzed in terms of collective and symbolic strategies for coping with social distress, a paradigm which, indeed, has been sustained by empirical evidence. However, according to this point of view, subjectivity appears for the most part as a psychology of coping. Furthermore, the way the subaltern believer molds her religious identity is predominantly acknowledged in the practice of conversion, which means as a shift of religious allegiances in order to adapt to conditions of urban marginalization, as a rule in the guise of collective identities. It is not difficult to see how, through this sociological division of labor, an inconvenient dichotomy arises. As a result, the subaltern believer, inevitably, either emerges as a self-therapeutic “mystic of misery,” trapped in a Marxian scenario (religion as means for consolation) or – perhaps worse – she appears to be bestowed with some sort of handed-down agency, make-believe creativity of sorts. She becomes thus a unsophisticated “identity tinkerer” in sharp contrast to the reflexive heroes of the emancipatory quest for one?s self in the subjectivist saga of post-modern sociology. Surprisingly enough, the practitioners of a contemporary sociology otherwise attuned to the voice of the subaltern have as of yet found it difficult to abandon once and for all the somewhat naïve Voltaireanism according to which the subaltern believer remains the “enchanted Other,” a dweller at the threshold of (late) modernity where the presumably liberating effects of individualization disband.
It follows that this somewhat problematic dichotomy begs a series of questions: Aren't subaltern believers, as inhabitants of mega-cities, equally compelled to individualization? Aren't they exposed to the imaginaries and life styles championed by consumer society as highway to individual self-fulfillment? Accordingly, what is their relation to late modernity? Is it a relation of mere exclusion? Are their identities just the opposite of individualization? The empirical evidence analyzed in this dissertation suggests otherwise. Further questions as to the sociological reason producing this dichotomy are pertinent. Is the gap between the outlined perspectives really justified by different levels of reflexivity? Are poor people less reflexive? Is there actually a reflexivity-bonus from which only exclusively post-industrial middle classes are benefiting? And if not: What, then, is the exact relation between late modernity, reflexivity and social inequality? This is a contested issue in contemporary sociology and an important avatar of the old problem of structure versus agency. This project attempts to bring this discussion to sociology of religion in order to overcome the described gap. The purpose of this dissertation, then, is twofold. First, to explore and critically engage with the deeper theoretical assumptions of the prevalent approaches to religious individualization – what I call the implicit teleological structure in the categorical triad of modernity, secularization and individualization – in order to, second, develop a theoretical and methodological approach that enables us to gain a deeper understanding of the specificity of religious identities produced by agents in subaltern positions in the symbolic struggle established by the late modern imperative of individualization.

Last but not least this study also points to a number of more far reaching ethical implications. When by means of an all-too-simplistic relation between reflexivity and social position, the dichotomy between the individualized-reflexive believer, on the one hand, and her collective-coping counterpart, on the other hand arises, this ends up producing nothing but an uncritical reflection of the deeply dehumanizing effects of social inequality.


The method of habitus analysis with the models of the praxeological square and the space of religious styles provides the central methodological apparatus of the project, thus feeding back empirically the theoretical and methodological research agenda on an Bourdieuan sociology of religion at CIRRuS. Complemented with ethnographic observation of the studied religious groups and theoretical elements from urban sociology and analysis of urban space, the project elaborates on three main research-axes: religious diversity under conditions of relative social homogeneity, transversality of religious styles (forms of believing across forms of belonging) and the relation between religious identity and urban spaciality.

Key assumptions

  • Social positions have been handled in macro and messo-sociological approaches to religion as a determinant factor over religious diversity. This way, certain types of religiosity have been often declared as "religions of the poor". Focusing on a micro-sociological level where relative social homogeneity coexists with high diversification of religion puts this notion into question and open new ways to explore religious pluralization.
  • Religious diversity has been for the most part conceived inside, outside or along institutional boundaries. However, it can be mapped in a new way when focusing on actors and institutionally transversal types of religious habitus. An actor-centered approach that considers also collective identities, enables sociological description to account for "believing with or without belonging" but also for "forms of believing across forms of belonging".
  • Urban space is not only a physical frame for everyday life. It is a materialization of the structures of social order but it is also perceived, constructed and appropriated through symbolic agency based on identity. Religious identities play a key role in popular culture when it comes to design strategies to "take place" and make sense out of the peculiar conditions of "late modernity" in the mega-city of the global south.

Team / Cooperations

Researcher: Adrián Tovar Simoncic

In cooperation with: Hugo José Suárzez

Funding: CONACYT

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