The sociology program at MU is geared toward improving life in communities, especially those that are considered vulnerable. Some of the problems that communities face are cultural in the sense of a strong diversity in religious or ethical differences that act as barriers rather than bridges between people. Understanding religious differences can help bring about social change. The Center’s focus on religious literacy in the form of training and education can be a valuable tool for communities with high amounts of diversity.
• Rural Sociology
• Social Work
Family relationships: As our culture grows increasingly diverse, there are more challenges and issues of differences involving religion. The differences are now not only between families, but also within families, as children choose to marry outside of faith or abandon the faith in which they were raised. Learning how to strengthen communities from within in a culture that values religion will become a tougher task for the practitioner as diversity increases. This intra-family exchange also will have an effect on public life. Improved literacy about religion in both contexts helps people become more educated about our differences in a way that builds up communities, making them stronger and more efficient.
Practitioners who understand the religious climate in which families operate can build trust with the family, better understand a family’s needs and help provide better social services. This may include knowledge of the language the family uses or customs about generational seniority, health care or views toward accepting help, based on their religious or cultural beliefs. Policies can recognize differences, champion diversity and promote cultural awareness, as families of all types and backgrounds continue to shape today’s culture.
Workplace relationships: Business bonds also have the potential to strengthen communities both in terms of economic opportunity and in relationship building. The Center is working to educate those in the professions about the types of religious diversity they will face in the workplace to make workplaces and communities stronger. Seeing those smaller communities as building blocks for the community at large can give a sociology researcher a chance to partner with the Center or researchers in other disciplines to do work that advances these aims.
Global and community relationships: Sociologists and social workers can look to religious groups for areas to study or models of social service in both a local and global setting. Religious groups often spearhead intervention in impoverished areas to improve quality of life. Some efforts are evangelistic in nature, others are not overtly so. Intervention ranges from health-care outreach and food boxes in local communities to providing medical care and building homes, improving sanitation and teaching indigenous people sustainable agriculture and new enterprises to overcome poverty at a global level.
Leadership: Leadership in local, state and federal social service is crucial, as policy matters affect resources available to individuals and families. Leaders in social services may want to work with or look to religious groups for assistance in understanding and fulfilling community needs. Religious leaders often have contact with a community and organizational skills that can be useful to sociologists studying the community and social workers serving the community.
Center projects: Fellows with the Center for Religion, the Professions & the Public have done research measuring religiousity/spirituality and: well-being among elderly whites, African-Americans and American Indians; social support and well-being among people living with HIV/AIDS in rural communities; social support and rural elderly individuals; and social support and psychological well-being among older adults in rural areas.
The Center worked with MU sociologists to design a survey of 400 citizens’ experience with professionals on matters related to religion and spirituality, as well as a parallel survey focused on professionals from eight professions. The Center is applying for a National Institutes of Health grant to study spirituality and health risk behaviors in adolescents, through its Spirituality and Health research project.
Use of media: The Center’s affiliation with the School of Journalism can be of interest to a researcher in sociology. The media can be a tool for education and empowerment, performing “bridging and bonding” roles in communities. Researchers can look at how religious literacy can be enhanced through media coverage or strategic communication campaigns in a way that can cause change in communities.
A current research project focuses on how to use media to better inform African-American women about breast cancer examinations. Religious institutions can act as clearinghouses for information and be distributors of material about health campaigns and other social services. Research could examine how changes in media coverage patterns help change communities.
Issues today: Researchers can compare and contrast the needs of families and individuals in rural and urban settings, and how these different settings may utilize religion similarly or differently to solve social problems. Coursework and training can be implemented that teaches practitioners about working with families in settings or languages with which they are familiar, to build trust and better understand specific religious beliefs and needs.
Researchers could look at the role of religious organizations in providing social services. What percentage of social services such as food for hungry families, addiction counseling, help finding homes, child care or health clinics are provided through religious institutions? How much do one’s religious beliefs play a role in the sense of responsibility for one’s community? Do the presence of houses of worship help define community? Researchers can work with the Center on inter-disciplinary projects to study and improve awareness in these areas.