Department of Religious Studies

Religion in Society

General Information
Major FieldsPreparation for Admission
Program Requirements
Qualifying ExamsLanguages

General Information

This area of concentration allows students to explore the dynamics of religion, culture, and society with a focus on theoretical and social scientific approaches. Students will develop research topics that begin with thematic, analytical, or theoretical questions and will then apply their questions to particular religious frameworks, specific geographical areas, or the movement of ideas, people, practices, and things within and across regions. We especially welcome questions that explore interactions between religious practices, social organizations, and cultural structures. Students will develop the research methods necessary for their projects; for many, these will include ethnographic research methods including ethno-historical approaches, but for others, these may include historical, material, and literary analyses.

This concentration allows students to develop research projects that might cut across traditional geographical, chronological, and tradition-based approaches for understanding religious practice. Projects in this area will necessarily use comparative methods, which may include research techniques drawn from textual and historical analysis or social science approaches grounded in ethnographic methods. Students will develop contextualized, data driven projects; this point is particularly important for those interested in ethics, as this program emphasizes descriptive ethics and often cross-cultural and cross-religious comparison of moral ideas and systems. 

Major Fields

The specific themes and questions supported by this area will depend on the current research interests of the faculty. Prospective applicants are encouraged to contact faculty as they develop their applications. Current faculty research interests include: Religion, Ethics, Society; Medicine and Health; Gender and the Body; Popular and Visual Culture, Religion and Science; Ritual Theory. 

Preparation for Admission

Applicants should have a B.A. or M.A. degree in Religious Studies or a related field from the Social Sciences or Liberal Arts. Previous coursework in area studies, in anthropology, or will provide a solid foundation for graduate study. Students progressing to doctoral work will need significant mastery of their primary research language; we thus strongly recommend that applicants have studied this language before entering the program. 

Program Requirements 

Doctoral students in this concentration take advantage of the disciplinary breadth of the core and allied faculty to develop research agendas that are analytically driven and, wherever possible, enriched by comparison across time, region, or religious tradition. Normally, their program of work should identify three specific categories: their analytical themes, their research methods, and the particular religious traditions and/or regions they wish to study. They will work closely with their advisor to develop a plan of coursework and qualifying exams that will meet the specific needs of their projects and help them develop the necessary expertise in each of these three categories.

In addition to the general program requirements in Religious Studies, graduate students in Religion in Society will take courses that introduce them to the scholarly approaches to their field and allow them to explore works or problems in the social scientific study of religions.

All students in Religion in Society are required to take RS 383T: Ethnographic Research Methods.

They are also strongly encouraged to take one or more core classes from other department areas that are relevant to their research interests. These include: Approaches to the Study of US Religion, Approaches to the Study of Religion in Latin America, Core Readings in Islamic Studies, Core Readings in Jewish Studies, Core readings on Religion in Asia, and Core Readings on Religion in Europe.

In addition, students must take at least two seminars in which they develop research projects that might lead toward their MA report and dissertation topic

Students will take additional courses, chosen in consultation with their faculty advisor, in preparation for the qualifying exams listed below. 

Qualifying Examinations 

Ph.D. candidates in Religious Studies are required to pass a set of qualifying examinations. The exams consist of four exams and an oral defense of the essays. Students will consult closely with area faculty in developing areas of specialization and fulfilling comprehensive examination requirements. The fields for Religion and Society are:

Major Field: This exam will be written on a selected area of specialization determined in consultation with faculty. It will focus on theoretical approaches to the study of religion in relation to the particular analytical questions central to the student’s area of research. Examples of such fields could be the anthropology of the body, material culture, politics and power, or ritual.

Thematic Field: This exam will focus on a particular theme in the study of religion and methodological approaches to its study; students will explore this selected topic across religious traditions and/or geographical areas. Examples of such fields include topics such as religion and society, ethics, religious pluralism. In some cases, where the literature for a particular area is particularly large, the the major field and thematic exams may be combined into one exam that involves a reading list and length of writing time/essay equivalent to two exams.

Supporting Field: A secondary area of specialization chosen from among the items determined in consultation with faculty. This may involve developing command of literature in a second religious tradition for comparative purposes or a second geographical area, or it may involve a deep reading in historical writings relevant to an ethnographic project.

Dissertation Field: Typically the special area(s) of research within the concentration field related to the development of a dissertation topic. This exam is focused on developing command of literature related to either the religious tradition or geographical area that is the primary focus of the study (e.g. Japanese religions, religion and popular culture in the US and s Asia, ethics and the body in Judaism and Christianity, etc). This exam will involve a thorough reading of ethnographic, historical, textual, and other social scientific literature related to the topic of research. 


Students should possess or develop knowledge of a minimum of two languages beyond English. This includes advanced competence in all languages necessary for data collection as well as any languages needed for secondary research. In rare cases, students may substitute statistics for one language.

Area Faculty

J. Brent Crosson, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Ph.D., University of California, Santa Cruz
Areas: Anthropologies of Religion, Secularism, and Law | Critical Race and Ethnic Studies | African Diaspora | South Asian Diasporas | Latin American and Caribbean Studies | Obeah | Science and Technology Studies

Oliver Freiberger, Associate Professor of Asian Studies and Religious Studies
Ph.D., Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany
Indian Buddhism | asceticism | comparison in the study of religion

Azfar Moin, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Ph.D., University of Michigan
Areas: Sufism and Sainthood in Islam | Sacred Kingship | History of Early Modern Iran, Central Asia, and South Asia

Jonathan Schofer, Associate Professor of Religious Studies
Ph.D., University of Chicago
AreasRabbinic literature | ethics | Jewish law | mysticism

Chad Seales, Associate Professor of Religious Studies
Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Areas: Religion in North America / evangelicalism / secularism / corporatism / industrialization / theory and method in the study of religion

John Traphagan, Professor of Religious Studies
Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh
AreasAstrobiology | Japanese religion & society | ritual | medical anthropology | science, technology, and culture | entrepreneurship in Japan