David G. Bromley

Biographical Sketch

        David G. Bromley received his Ph.D. from Duke University in 1971. He has served on the faculties of the University of Virginia, University of Texas at Arlington, and University of Hartford. He joined the faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University as department chair in 1984. He is currently a Professor of Sociology with an affiliate appointment in the Department of Religious Studies. He also holds an affiliate appointment in the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia. Dr. Bromley has worked in a variety of areas through his academic career. His early research and writing were in the areas of urban and political sociology. Most of his current work is in the areas of sociology of religion, social movements, and deviance, with a primary focus on contemporary religious movements. He is past-president of the Association for the Sociology of Religion and editor-emeritus of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. He has authored or edited over a dozen books and numerous journal articles and book chapters in the sociology of religion. He is currently working on two books, The Politics of Religious Apostasy, an edited collection of papers examining the role that apostates have played in the development of religious movements, and Prophetic Religion in a Secular Age (with Anson Shupe), which examines the structure and significance of a variety of contemporary religious movements. Dr. Bromley currently teaches courses in Sociology of Religion and in Deviant Behavior on both the undergraduate and graduate levels. The undergraduate course in Deviant Behavior (SOC 303) is an introductory survey course without departmental prerequisites. Major types of deviance and sociological explanations for them are examined. The Sociology of Religion (SOC 360) is an advanced course oriented two majors in sociology and religious studies or other students with some background in the subject area.

  October 1997

 Our October "Spotlight" interview is with Professor David Bromley. Here’s how this
 "virtual" interview arrangement works. A student/faculty group got their heads together
 and developed a slate of questions, which were put on a disk and given to Prof. Bromley.
 He responded, on the same disk—having been told that he was free to make editorial
 changes in the questions if he’d like, adding additional queries and removing others to help
 give our readers a fuller view of who he is and what’s he’s been doing with his life. Here
 are his answers. They’re uncut, unedited and uncensored. Pure David Bromley.


 What path did you follow in earning your Ph.D. in sociology and becoming a university  professor? When did you decide you wanted to wear a "sociology" hat, and what other  alternatives did you consider?

        When I was finishing my last year of high school I heard about Colby College. I wanted to attend a  small, liberal arts college, and Colby was intriguing. The college had left a downtown campus and  was building an entirely new campus outside of Waterville, Maine. When I was visiting other  colleges in Maine, I also interviewed on the Colby campus. For me there was a certain chemistry  about the place that it is difficult to put into words. I was just tremendously attracted to the campus and the people I met. It was an easy choice. I arrived as a freshman without any specific academic  interests, and so I took the usual range of required and elective courses. Like many of the students who will read this web spotlight, I was looking for something but did not know what that something  was. It was a time of exploration. Among my first courses was an introductory course in French. Again, I think the story is a familiar one. I decided to take another course and declare a major not so much because I fell in love with learning a language but rather because the professor made the culture and language come alive for me. I stayed with French until I took my first course in sociology. After that course I changed my major and never looked back. I took just about every sociology course in Colby's limited curriculum. By my junior year, most of my friends were making plans to go on to graduate school. I had decided to pursue sociology and was thinking seriously
about an academic career. At that point, my primary interest was in teaching rather than research. My mentor in sociology suggested a number of graduate school possibilities. One of them was Duke University. The department had just revamped the graduate program in sociology, brought in a number of new faculty from around the country, and was intensively recruiting new graduate students who would fit into the program. There was a real sense of excitement in the department. All of the new faculty had major research projects underway, and so there was a lot of choice of opportunities for students. I accepted a position as a research assistant and moved from Maine to North Carolina.

What were your favorite courses as an undergraduate and a graduate student?

        In my experience, sometimes it is a course that draws students to sociology, but just as often it is the professor. It is difficult to identify my favorite course because in my case it was the professor and his unique capacity to communicate a sociological perspective that really attracted me to sociology. In a very real way Kingsley Birge changed my life. His is not a name you will recognize. If you go to the library and look him up, you will not find a single reference to his work. He was a teacher, a great teacher, one of those teachers that compels students to be interested because of the passion with which he professes his discipline. I took every one of his courses. At the time I wasn't sure why, but I knew I had to be in a seat in any class he taught. I suppose every student hopes for that kind of experience. I just got lucky. He helped me make sense of the world through sociology. I was not alone; many other students preceded and followed me in his courses and were profoundly influenced by the experience. Following his untimely death a number of years later his students banded together and donated enough money to endow an annual lecture in his name. One of the most rewarding experiences I have had in the last several years was being invited back to Colby to deliver that lecture. For me, it was like coming full circle.

How did you decide on the subject of your dissertation? How has your dissertation research influenced your subsequent work?

        Actually, the first year of graduate school was something of a shock. I think my experience as an undergraduate student was typical. I had a number of teachers and courses I liked, and I connected to both courses and professors as a learner, a consumer of knowledge. Graduate school, by contrast, is about learning to become a producer of knowledge. It is a huge adjustment. Learning to think creatively within a discipline is a real challenge. Probably the major challenge is developing creative, viable thesis and dissertation projects. Most often, it seems, the answer to how all of this occurs can be summed up in one word -- serendipity. Most of the sociology faculty at Duke were working in the areas of urban sociology, demography, and political sociology. There were several large grants in the department that supported students and offered data sets that could be used for thesis and dissertation research. My first research assignment was in the area of urban sociology; I worked on a project analyzing the process of suburbanization. I decided to take a piece of a major research project on which my advisor was working as a thesis topic. The thesis examined how different types of transportation systems integrate rapidly developing suburban communities with central cities in metropolitan areas of the United States. I continued to work in the same general area for my dissertation but moved away from urban sociology and toward political sociology. The dissertation analyzed the political process of territorial expansion by central cities of metropolitan areas through annexation of surrounding territory. I was particularly fascinated by the political conflicts that develop between cities and suburban communities. There are intense battles over these  urban expansion campaigns. The outcomes have enormous implications for the degree of political fragmentation or integration in a metropolitan area and for the capacity of political problems that transcend their boundaries. I also had an opportunity to work on a project on the political socialization of children in the United States and Canada that studied the way that politically active individuals first gained a sense of political identity. That project was the first one in which I was involved as a collaborator and author. My primary interest in working on this project was in the political socialization of women and the increasing involvement of women in the political process through American history. There were real friendships between the students and between students and faculty who worked on these projects. On the research teams there was a strong sense of camaraderie and challenge. While I was working on my dissertation I accepted a position at the University of Virginia. Initially, I taught courses in urban sociology, political sociology, and social problems. The department later assigned me a course in criminology, an area in which I had virtually no background but in which I rapidly developed an interest. It did fit with my political and problems interests, and I subsequently began teaching a course in deviant behavior as well. It turned out that those courses were instrumental in my move to the University of Texas system because the department was interested in developing a specialty in urban sociology but also needed someone to teach cross-listed criminology and deviant behavior courses for the in the criminal justice program. The criminology and deviance courses also meshed with my interest in political sociology. The opportunity to pull all of these interests together presented itself in Texas. While at the University of Texas at Arlington I began studying religious movements through my combined interests in deviance and political sociology. My first research project on religious movements was on the Unification Church (popularly referred to as the "Moonies"), a movement that was regarded as highly political and deviant. A group of recruiters were located just off campus, and I had the opportunity to  interview them. As I gained greater access to the group, I began assembling organizational information. Within a short time, a colleague and I began work on a book, Moonies in America. Again serendipitously, the national headquarters for the countermovement opposing the Moonies and other religious movements also was located within a short distance of the university. We began collecting information on the countermovement and then developed a second book project, The New Vigilantes. From that point on, I began developing my interest in religious movements specifically and religion more generally.

What kind of research are you involved in now? What research directions do you plan to follow in the future?

        I am currently involved in a number of projects in the sociology of religion. One ongoing project in which I am involved is an annual series that I edit for the Association for the Sociology of the Religion. The series, Religion and the Social Order: New Directions in Theory and Research,  identifies developing issues in the sociology of religion and creates a forum in which social scientists working on those issues can discuss their work. Themes of volumes that have been published  include, for example, religion and deviance, the nature and appeal of movements that have religious characteristics but disavow status as churches, the process by which religious groups come to be socially regarded as authentic and legitimate, the implications of Vatican II for the Catholic Church. I am also engaged in a number of book projects. I recently finished a book on religious apostates,  individuals who defect from a religious movement and ally with an oppositional movement. Currently I am working on Religious and Resistance: Prophetic in a Secular Age, which develops a general theory of contemporary religious movements. I am just starting a book on the connection between religion and violence, Dramatic Confrontations. This book will examine some of the recent violent encounters between religious movements, such as the Branch Davidians, and the larger social order.

You've read many books. Which two or three stay with you as being especially significant,  and why?

        When I began my undergraduate education I think that I was like most other students, very much thinking and living within the confines of my own culture and my own historical time. I don't  remember a single book but rather a series of books that began to change my perspective on the world around me. One set of books I encountered in a course on utopias and dysutopias. We read a number of books, such as Plato's Republic, to Bellamy's Looking Backward, Orwell's 1984,  Thoreau's Walden Two. I began to think not only in terms of the way the world around me was but also in terms of the way it might be. I also took a course in Cultural Anthropology in which we read some classic works by Margaret Mead (Coming of Age in Samoa, Growing up in New Guinea),  Ruth Benedict (Patterns of Culture, Chrysanthemum and the Sword), Bronislaw Malinowski (Sex and Repression in Savage Society, Magic, Science, and Religion) and Dorothy Lee (Freedom and Culture). They gave me a sense of the diversity that occurs across human communities and the enormous number of social and cultural possibilities that have existed across times and civilizations. Finally, I read a number of books critical of American society. Some of them critiqued the larger social order, like Marx's Communist Manifesto Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class. Others focused on problems of growing up in contemporary American society; most significant to me were Edgar Friedenberg's Coming of Age in America and Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd. For me those books connected structural problems to individual problems of becoming an adult in American society. Although I would not have said it this way at the time, I think I was intrigued by the visions of a better society that humans construct for themselves, the very real contradictions that exist in the contemporary social order, and the way that individuals experience existing tension and mobilize for change. The various ideas in these books came together for me later when I began studying religious movements in which groups constructed visions of the sacred as a means of critiquing the social  order, creating a vision of a better world, and experimented with a variety of alternative forms of social organization for realizing that vision. One of the books that most influenced me somewhat later was, strangely enough, a textbook, Complex Organization, written by Amitai Etzioni. In that book he identifies and analyzes three basic types of organization based on three primary forms of social control. I soon discovered that a number of social theorists have employed roughly comparable concepts. Over the last several years I have been working on a theory of religious movements in which I explore the implications of ongoing tensions between what I refer to a contractual and covenantal forms of social relations. These two forms correspond to two of the types in Etzioni's work. I am developing an analysis of contemporary religious movements as the products of the tension between those two related but incompatible forms of organization. That project is gradually taking the form of a book, Religion and Resistance: Prophetic Religion in a Secular Age.

Could you describe a success story of one student with whom you have worked? How did you play a role in that student's intellectual progress?

        Actually, the teaching experience I remember most as a success involved a whole class rather than a specific person. The course was what was designated a "liberal arts seminar" when I was on the faculty at the University of Virginia. These seminars are organized around mutual interests of faculty and students, are relatively small, and draw students who are seriously interested in the topic. At the time there were a number of students interested in the problem of racism. A colleague and I developed a seminar in conjunction with about fifteen undergraduate students. The students felt that the kind of material they wanted to read on racism was not readily available in textbooks and readers. As the project evolved, the students proposed that the class should design its own "book" by compiling a set of interdisciplinary readings that did illuminate the issues in which they were interested. We divided the material into segments, and members of the class volunteered to assume responsibility for one segment. Of course, anyone was free to nominate readings for any part of the project. The cohesiveness of the class just seemed to grow. I have never been part of a course where everyone worked so hard and learned so much. By the end of the semester those fifteen students had read and reviewed over 1,000 books and articles. In the middle of the semester, there was a student strike (Yes, at UVA). All of the classes in the college were cancelled for a time. As I was leaving the building on the day that the seminar usually met, I ran into some of the students. They asked where I was going, and I said that I was honoring the strike. They responded that they wanted to meet this class, that they were not going to strike their own class. To the best of my knowledge, that was the only class that met through the strike period. Toward the end of the class the participants began to recognize that they would not be able to complete the project in the way that they had hoped despite their effort and commitment. There was still a great deal of work to be done. They encouraged us to continue their work; a few students even continued to work on the project for a time after the semester ended. Most of them stayed in touch with us long after the course ended. The other faculty member and I decided that we should see the project through to its culmination. We continued to work on the project for at least another year. Ultimately were able to find a publisher for what evolved into a book, White Racism and Black Americans. That course led me to define "success" in teaching in a different way than I had previously. The experience taught me how spontaneously learning occurs when it is an act of creative expression by the learner and when everyone in classroom is both a student and a teacher.

What teaching innovations or new directions are you taking that you find exciting?

        Well, the Web is certainly one of the currently most talked about and rapidly disseminating innovations in teaching. This column would not have been possible in quite the same way just a few years ago, and a lot of students may now have the opportunity to get to know a little about the faculty who show up in their classes every week. It seems to me that the Web embodies the promise and the peril of our time. The Web takes advantage of rapidly advancing technology to put the world at our cursor-tips. Now you can take a trip into cyber space and never leave your home. As with other technological innovations with implications for teaching, the question is what use are we going to make of it. There is now an enormous amount of information available for the downloading. As classrooms get plugged in, the world can be brought into the classroom. As the technology disseminates, there may no longer be any "remote" places left on the planet. The ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere creates a potential for democracy previously unknown, the possibility for citizens to mobilize and organize rapidly and effectively in response to emerging issues in their own communities or on the other side of the world. This can be individually and collectively empowering. Personally, I am already planning to insure my own immortality as a web site. By creating time-release updates, I might stay relevant to surfers for another century if I select my themes cleverly. There is another side to the story, of course. The Web started out as a grass-roots enterprise. It is already being heavily commercialized, and if there are substantial profits to be made,  watch out. The question is will the new technology create opportunities for vital discussion or devolve into vacuous chat rooms. Will it open up new horizons or simply become the world's largest porno stand. Will it generate mutual understanding between people or just voyeurism. Like other forms of technology, it probably will do both and be a blessing and a curse. My primary concern with respect to teaching is that, along with other similar developments, it will create a false impression of what education means. In my view, at least, education does not mean knowing more,  it means understanding more. It does not mean getting more facts, it means gaining more perspective. It may be possible now to get anywhere, but the question remains, where should we be going. The problem of our age is not that we do not have enough information, it is that we are awash information but very short on wisdom. In the end, I think teaching innovations should be judged by whether they contribute to understanding about ourselves and our world and to wisdom in the use of our knowledge.

What advice would you give students interested in becoming sociologists or anthropologists?

        It is all too easy to give advice, and so I want to be careful about this. There are only a couple of things I feel certain about. I think the single most important thing is to take advantage of the time and space you have as an undergraduate. It never comes again. Life is a journey, and it doesn't come with a map. Be patient, give yourself time. Have faith in yourself and your ability. It is alright to explore and struggle. Find out what you are really good at, what really motivates you, and what is worthy of your commitment. Invest yourself in that. People who develop their abilities and are committed to what they are doing never go hungry. One decision that students frequently agonize over is what discipline to major in as an undergraduate. In some ways it is a very important decision and in other ways it is not a very important decision at all. A major is just a means of adopting a disciplinary stance to achieve depth and breadth of perspective. A fundamental choice at this university is between  ocupationally-oriented and liberal arts majors. If you choose an occupationally-oriented program, do it because you really want to devote some part of your life to that calling not because there is an immediate job waiting at the end of the educational process. The lure of assured employment is compelling, but in the end the credential will not be worth a great deal  if you are not committed to what you are doing. If you elect a liberal arts major, choose a discipline that really intrigues and motivates you. If that discipline is sociology or anthropology, fine. But it can just as well be any other discipline. The value of a liberal arts major is learning to think critically, analyze, develop depth of thought and breadth of perspective. It doesn't matter whether it is  history, english, sociology, or spanish; what matters is that a major awakens your own potential and opens up the world around you. Any major in the liberal arts is only what you make of it.

This is an urban university with an urban agenda. How, if at all, does your research mesh with VCU's urban mission?

        VCU indeed identifies itself as an urban university. Trouble is, there is little agreement on precisely what that means. To some it means connecting with the locale, state, or region as a state assisted research institution. To others, who observe that we live in an urban society, the linkages are much broader. I think that my work relates more meaningfully to the second perspective since I am studying conflicts that are rooted in the structure of the larger society and have implications across the social order. Almost anyone's work can be relevant to specific locales, however, and part of  VCU's mission is to be relevant to the community within which it resides and that supports it. But I think the university is stronger if faculty, to adopt a popular phrase, think globally and act locally. In the case of my own work, I am many of the movements that I study have organizational units and
 members in the region, and I am working actively with students who use local sites to study these

What trends in education, particularly in higher education, are especially intriguing to  you? What do you see as their potential? Which do you find the most worrisome?

        Universities increasingly are just a microcosm of the larger society. The notion of a sheltered academic community that resides behind ivy covered walls is rapidly receding into history. And so I think that both the promise and peril facing universities are much the same as they are for the rest of society. Over the last several decades, universities have changed dramatically. The changes that have occurred create both the promise and the peril that confronts us. The challenge that faces us is  to enjoy the promise and avoid the peril. Let me simply describe the situation at this moment as I see  it. The promise on which universities have delivered are several. They have become central to knowledge creation and problem solving. The expansion of knowledge and advances in technology offer us an unprecedented opportunity to define and address problems in the world we inhabit. Virtually every major social institution relies on the knowledge that universities create. Education is also central to the preservation of a democratic social order. We all rely on an informed, educated citizenry as the foundation of a civil society. Education enhances the personal freedom, if that is measured by choices available to us, that Americans value so highly. We have unparalleled freedom to choose personal identities, relationships, lifestyles, occupations, political and social causes. The perils also are several. The kind of institution that the university have has become is an increasingly bureaucratically structured organization that produces instrumental, technical knowledge. Professors become professionals, experts who create and manage specific areas of knowledge. Based on this knowledge the university issues credentials. In order to have access to occupational opportunities, students become consumers of technical knowledge and are awarded appropriate credentials. Education is thus becoming a product that universities produce and students and their families consume. The trade increasingly is tuition for credentials. In my view, at least, there is a real danger in reducing the next generation to a market to be tapped. Both faculty and students are involved in making this bargain. In the long run I think it is a bad deal for both. Universities begin to compromise their capacity to innovate and imagine outside of a narrow range and students begin to compromise  the motivation to explore and inquire outside the context of credentialing.

From the perspective of an expert in one area of sociology, please comment on what  particular problems, issues, or opportunities are the most striking to you at this time, as the world moves toward the twenty-first century.

        My response to this question flows out of the answer to the last. I study movements that are in protest to varying degrees against the social order as it currently exists. I think that what a great number of these movements share in common is a concern with what is of value rather than what is technically possible and with how to balance collective responsibility with individual rights. We live in a world in which the means of technological control at our disposal are unprecedented. But to what purpose do we direct that power? We can create extraordinarily efficient organizations, but in the name of what goal? All of us have become exceedingly vocal in asserting our rights, but what of our responsibilities to one another as Americans or as rapidly growing residents of a small planet? As we have created more technical knowledge, instrumentally oriented institutions, including universities, seem to be less rather than more able to address these larger concerns. Many of our institutions stand mute on matters of morality and value. I think this is why so many social movements seek to address questions of value, community, and responsibility. These movements are rethinking our relationships to the environment and other species that inhabit it along with us, what it means to be a man and a woman; our rights and responsibilities at the boundaries of our existence -- life and death; our obligations to the generations that preceded and those that we hope will follow us; the technologies that we create and unleash, often with little reflectiveness. Universities, and disciplines like sociology and anthropology, should be at the center of inquiries. If I have to identify a single challenge that confronts us as we enter the next millennium, I think that it would be our will and capacity to address these foundational issues of defining together what is of ultimate value, the nature of ends that should orient our actions, and the framework of collective responsibilities, within which our individual rights are embedded.

 The information on this page was taken from the department
homepage and may be accessed at that site as well.

Dr. Bromley's

Sociology of Religion

Sociology of Deviant Behavior