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Unit information: Mind, body, spirit? Critical approaches to contemporary belief in 2018/19

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Unit name Mind, body, spirit? Critical approaches to contemporary belief
Unit code SOCIM0022
Credit points 20
Level of study M/7
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Dan Whillis
Open unit status Not open




School/department School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies
Faculty Faculty of Social Sciences and Law


This unit explores a number of critical issues related to the nature and significance of belief in contemporary society. Is belief something immaterial and all in the mind – or is it something that is inherently embodied, through social and material practices? How have attempts to delimit and define belief been shaped by different historical events and intellectual paradigms? What approaches are increasingly dominant in sociological studies of religion and related phenomena today? And just how prevalent a feature of contemporary society is belief? What shapes does it take? How do people do belief? Is it harder to believe today than in the past? How much sense does it make to talk of ‘unbelief’? What happens to belief in the oft-purported shift from ‘religion’ to ‘spirituality’? And what are we to make of avowedly secular and critical attempts to proclaim the significance of spiritual beliefs to contemporary politics and economics? This unit grapples with all these questions and more, pursuing a number of historical, philosophical, and political arguments, as well as delving into several notable empirical cases of contemporary belief.

Unit aims:
• To provide a critical historical overview of shifting attitudes to belief, from early modern Protestantism, through classical sociological analyses, to contemporary sociologies of religion and philosophies of becoming.
• To convey a sense of the challenges associated with believing in a highly reflexivized and pluralized world.
• To engage critically with theoretical attempts to ground political analysis in notions of belief, transcendence, spirituality and enchantment.
• To encourage a critical and independent approach to both theoretical understanding and empirical analysis.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of the unit, students will be able to:
• Critically engage with key historical and conceptual approaches to belief in the sociology of religion and related fields
• Demonstrate understanding of the differing nature and social significance of belief in modernity and postmodernity
• Apply advanced analytical skills to particular forms of belief in contemporary society
• Critically evaluate contemporary accounts of the ideological underpinnings of contemporary society, politics, and economics.

Teaching details

Ten two-hour seminars

In addition to the 20 hours of classroom time, students are expected to devote approximately 180 hours to independent reading, seminar preparation and essay writing.

Assessment Details

Please state the methods used for formative and summative assessment, including essay word length, length and type of exams, projects, etc. The relative contributions of the different summative assessments to the overall unit mark should also be included, e.g. 3-hour written exam (60%), 2000 word essay (40%).
Please link the assessment to the intended learning outcomes bearing in mind that it is expected that all intended learning outcomes are assessed.

Formative assessment: Essay plan – 1000 words
Students will be expected to produce a short (max 1000 word) essay plan that will be returned before the Easter Vacation, giving students ample opportunity to work their essays up to full length, taking into account the whole range of material covered on the unit. The formative assessment will enable the unit owner to provide feedback on the extent to which the essay plan indicates that the intended learning outcomes of the unit are likely to be met.

Summative assessment: 4000 word essay (100% of the mark)
Summative assessment will entail answering one from a list of 10 essay questions, which will be designed so as to require an engagement with the themes of each of the four Intended Learning Outcomes, listed below. Students will therefore be assessed on their ability to meet these Outcomes, by way of a critical essay of 4000 words that draws upon relevant readings, materials and debates covered in the unit.

Reading and References

• Jane Bennett (2001) The Enchantment of Modern Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
• Colin Campbell (2007) The Easternization of the West: A Thematic Account of Cultural Change in the Modern Era. London: Paradigm.
• John D. Caputo (2001) On Religion. Oxon: Routledge.
• Richard Flory & Donald E. Miller (2008) Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
• Philip Goodchild (2002) Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety. Oxon: Routledge.
• Charles Taylor (2007) A Secular Age. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
• Manuel Vásquez (2010) More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.