Introduction

As the reader will have noted, this essay is not entitled 'a sociology of' or 'an anthropology of' Eastern Orthodoxy, denoting an object of study caught within the frame of an academic field of enquiry. We believe such an act of academic closure is premature, for a range of complex social, historical and cultural reasons, some of which are explored below. Socio-political and cultural analysis is based upon a number of unspoken, often long-standing and rarely explicated assumptions, and this affects the way we view all cultures, especially alien ones. In the case of Eastern Orthodoxy these influences are manifold: they are clearly present in the way other Christian Churches or religious groupings understand it, and also shape the manner in which mainly secular western commentators understand the Church and the societies in which it plays an important role. So it is the doubtful relationship between Eastern Orthodoxy and largely western social scientific thought that we explore. It can be argued that there is a remarkable historical amnesia and a woeful lack of comparative analysis in many contemporary accounts of the role of the Orthodox churches in the contemporary era. It is not that history is missing in many of these accounts; indeed, it could be argued that a profoundly misplaced historicism is at work, which profoundly distorts our understanding of Churches per se and leads frequently to a kind of theological reductionism in which supposed aspects of church theology are seen to lead inexorably to certain social outcomes.

One point must be made clear: despite the considerable significance of Eastern Orthodox Christianity both in terms of sheer numbers and historical significance there is in reality very little in the way of a sociology of it. It has not been a focus of scholarly attention by either the classical founders of sociology in the nineteenth century or amongst contemporary academic sociologists in western universities, whose work dominates the academic journals of the discipline and to a large measure defines its subject matter. If we just take one example from the British context, the standard text books used on most courses focusing on the sociology of religion in British universities are two works written by the well-known British scholar Malcolm Hamilton: The Sociology of Religion: Theoretical and Comparative Perspectives (1995) and Sociology and the World's Religions (1998). Neither of these texts contains any discussion of Eastern Orthodox Christianity; you could read both these books without ever realizing, if you did not know already, that there existed any such tradition within Christianity. This should not be seen as an idiosyncratic failure on the part of Hamilton, far from it. In the Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Religion, edited by R. Fenn (2001) the reader will find that Eastern Orthodox Churches are mentioned twice and only in passing, in just one essay in the volume by J. A. Beckford, compared with, say, Taoism which is referred to on some ten occasions.

This should not be seen as any criticism of particular authors. Both Hamilton and Fenn are widely and correctly recognized as distinguished in this field but it is, rather, symptomatic of a much wider phenomenon which reveals much about the nature of sociology, and western understandings of the 'East' and the positioning of Orthodoxy, culturally and geographically within what might be termed the 'western gaze'. A central point we wish to argue here is that to gain a sense of the social dimensions and locatedness of Eastern Orthodoxy one needs to pay careful attention to the mode by which Eastern Orthodoxy is made either present or absent within the dominant conceptions of secular western thought, a key element of which is the social sciences. Sociological understanding of Eastern Orthodoxy, then, is also an exercise in an understanding of the relationship of the discipline as a self-conscious form of modernity to the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy. For example it is surely very revealing that the monumental 'International Encyclopaedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences' (2002), an electronic resource intended to be comprehensive and exhaustive in its coverage, has only one reference to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and that is under the category 'Globalization: political aspects'.

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