Research Project
Identity as a Network: An Outline in Theory

The public role of religious identities is constantly gaining greater significance in the social sciences, corresponding to a number of empirical observations: fundamentalist, Pentecostal and Islamist identity politics (Appleby, Cleary/Steigenga, Schäfer); identity consolidation among migrants (T. Meyer); identity formation in ‘transnational fields’ (Pries); political instrumentalization of identities (Bush/Huntington), and the diffusion of identities in post-industrial societies (Z. Baumann). However, while identity politics empirically turn more important, the theoretical concept is becoming blurred. The classical concept of identity as a more or less ‘closed’ unit (Erikson, Mead) – albeit socially acquired – has been supplanted by postmodern theories of identity as multiple, hybrid or ‘patchwork’ (Keupp, Gergen, Bhabha, Elster).
Drawing conclusions from these observations for a theory of identity—including religious identity—such a theory should today be able to raise the issue of relative inner unity and relative inner diversity of identities in such a way that, within this model or concept,

  • the symbolic dimension of identities is related to the specific social conditions of the actors,
  • collective and individual aspects of identities are taken into account, and
  • identities and strategies can be understood as related to one another.

Therefore, we propose to conceive of identity as a network of dispositions. Based upon Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of habitus and practical logic, we model such a network as consisting of socially acquired dispositions of perception, judgment and action, which are anchored in cognition, emotion and the body. Such a concept—suitable to be operationalized for empirical research—makes it possible to model the simultaneous existence of fragmented and coherent structures which form the identities of social actors, while also allowing us at the same time to distinguish between individual and collective dimensions of identity networks by simply following the idea of superimposing different networks, thus finding differences and ‘overlaps’. The notion of a network of dispositions also links identities with strategies inasmuch as it allows conceptualizing both as concurring in an actor’s praxis. As the dispositions are socially generated and linked to certain fields of praxis, a network also necessarily integrates experience and interpretation, action and meaning, into the concept of identity as such—in other words, the practical ‘use’ (Wittgenstein) of signs, by which identities unfold. Finally, religious identities are not seen as ‘separate entities’. They are shaped according to specific dispositions which operate with reference to transcendence, but are simultaneously woven into a vast network of non-religious dispositions of the same individual or collective actor.

Selected Publications

Schäfer, H. W. 2008. Kampf der Fundamentalismen. Radikales Christentum, radikaler Islam und Europas Moderne. Frankfurt: Verlag der Weltreligionen (Suhrkamp). (The struggle of fundamentalisms. Radical Christianity, radical Islam and Europe’s modernity).

Schäfer, H. W. 2002. Entre dos fuegos: una historia socio-política de la Iglesia Presbiteriana en Guatemala. Guatemala / Drexel Hill: CEDEPCA / SEP / Skipjack Pr.

Schäfer, H. W. 2009. «The Pentecostal movement – social change and religious habitus» in: Bertelsmann Stiftung (ed.): What the World Believes: Analysis and Commentary on the Religion Monitor 2008. Gütersloh: Verlag Bertelsmann Stiftung: pp. 533-585.

Schäfer, H. W. 2005. Identität als Netzwerk. Ein Theorieentwurf am Beispiel religiöser Bewegungen im Bürgerkrieg Guatemalas. Berliner Journal für Soziologie 15(2): 259-282. (Identity as a network. A theoretical outline exemplified on religious movements in the Guatemalan civil war).