Google “Roland Robertson” and you will immediately encounter the terms “globalization” (and “glocalization”). Strict priority might be disputed, but if any single name is rightly associated with these concepts, it is his.
On the other hand, read his Wikipedia entry and you come away with the impression that the globalization work is all he ever did. This is of course not so, and today I wish to speak to the import of some his earlier work (from the 1960’s and 1970’s), setting it in the context of its times as well as its impact on the ASR, in which he was heavily involved for much of his career and of which he was President in 1987-88.
Roland was born just outside Norwich soon before the War, and he came of political age during Suez and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He took a BSc Econ at Southampton in 1960, and (on the advice of Norman Birnbaum, then up at Nuffield) started grad work at LSE with Tom Bottomore. He then obtained a fellowship to study with Bryan Wilson at Leeds 1961-62 (just before Bryan went up to Oxford, where he would best Birnbaum for a fellowship at All Souls in 1963). It is worth mentioning Roland studied at Leeds (which he described in a 2005 interview as “a magnet for somebody with dual commitments both to sociology and to socialism”) in the days of Alasdair MacIntyre, John Rex, Stephen Toulmin, and E P Thompson. (It is worth adding that Roland’s dissertation would have concerned “the transition among the British working class from religious to political action.”)
Before coming to the U.S. to take a post at Pittsburgh in 1967, Roland taught at Leeds and Essex, and from 1970-74 was chair at York before returning to Pittsburgh, where he remained until 1999. He went afterwards to Aberdeen, then settled in Leicester.
Roland produced International Systems and the Modernization of Societies with his good friend from Leeds, J. Peter Nettl (which appeared in 1968, the year Nettl’s plane crashed). The genealogy of globalization is evident here, in their attempt to think about the category “society” as beyond state borders (and strict disciplinary lanes).
In addition, between Essex and Pitt, Robertson made his first big mark in our turf with The Sociological Interpretation of Religion (1970) and a companion reader which preceded it, called simply Sociology of Religion (1969). In this early treatise on religion, he developed (in Ch. 3) a deft approach to definition: functional definitions always depend on some background substantive definition; our substantive definition comes from the Judeo-Christian (and especially Protestant) ambivalence between this-world and other-world; such that religion is whatever, by analogy, corresponds anywhere whatsoever to this historically- and culturally-grounded notion. But (he added) far from this reflexivity being a deficiency (on account of empire, hegemony, or as is now said, “Eurocentrism”), it is the beginning of wisdom. This cuts an intellectual Gordian knot that bound up a lot of hand-wringing about definitions, as well as the methodology of participant observation.
Robertson began at a time of great, and creative, ferment — not only in the study of religion but in sociological theory more generally.
First, at this time a number of important works appeared in the sociology of religion. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1966; 1967) re-thought sociological theory from the ground up and drew appropriate conclusions for the study of religion. The same year as Robertson’s anthology of the classics, Birnbaum and Gertrud Lenzer published the magisterial Sociology and Religion: A Book of Readings (1969). Robert Bellah followed his 1964 “Religious Evolution” with his thesis on American Civil Religion in 1967.
Second, in general the sociological classics were being rediscovered. People were reading for themselves Durkheim and Weber (and Marx) other than through Parsons’ particular synthesis in The Structure of Social Action. Clearly Berger and Luckmann were doing this. Robertson’s debt to Parsons is both deep and obvious, though one might read Roland as doing exactly this same sort of thing too. This was also the era of Alvin Gouldner’s The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology (1970), Robert Friedrich’s A Sociology of Sociology (1970), Charles Glock and Phillip Hammond’s Beyond the Classics? Essays in the Scientific Study of Religion (1973) in the US but also Anthony Giddens’ Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An Analysis of the Writings of Marx Durkheim and Max Weber (1971), along with Steven Lukes’ intellectual biography Durkheim (1973) in the UK.
Inasmuch as religion was at the forefront of the classics, religion was poised to move out of sociological backwaters.
In those days, ferment characterized sociology in Britain as well as in America. Sociology (particularly when conceived as left Labour, applied) was waxing in British intellectual life. In 1975 Bryan’s good friend Sir Malcolm Bradbury published a comic novel about this, The History Man. Some say the title character is based on Robertson; some say, Lukes. Both may be correct. Perhaps Baron Giddens, too. Caricature is not necessarily the converse of truth.
The sort of sociology Robertson could write in the 1970’s and 1980’s would hardly have been possible some decades earlier — surely not from America at the height of the Cold War. I couldn’t say what Roland’s mature politics were, precisely, but although he was a friend of Parsons and a foe of economism, when it came to sociological theory, he like, his British contemporaries, had no problem mentioning the triumvirate Marx Durkheim and Max Weber all in the same breath. Of course, Roland would add Simmel, too.
For Robertson it was the Marx of “life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” that counted, not the economism of the Second International. But more than Marx, Durkheim (or even Simmel), Roland made hay of Weber. This comes out, for example, when he analyzes the permutations of inner-worldly/other-worldly and asceticism/mysticism (in Sociological Analysis in 1975, and again in chapter 4 of his 1978 Meaning and Change) so as to show that, though nominally about “religion” in some narrow sense, this pattern is rather of quite general utility for social psychology. It is also useful, by extension, for any sociological theory conceived — to quote the title of Roland’s 1979 work with Burkart Holzner — as a relation between Identity and Authority. This is just one illustration, though a main one, of the ways that Robertson moved with the cutting edge of that era in which the classics were back and religion was at the center, not on some periphery.
Robertson was very much a part of these contemporary currents of evolving sociological thought, and in particular served to channel them within the precincts of the ASR — in those transitional days of our journal Sociological Analysis, poised as it was between its erstwhile title American Catholic Sociology Review and its eventual title Sociology of Religion. Religion was, for Roland, always an integral part of the big sociological picture. To that end, when he was especially active in ASR — he was book review editor 1980-82, President 1987-88, and associate editor until 1989 — Roland made sure to engage the like-minded. These included: folks like his student from Leeds, Bryan Turner, and his colleague from Leeds, Essex, and York Andrew Tudor; scholars of new religious movements like Tom Robbins and Eileen Barker; David Martin; Steve Bruce; Dick Fenn; Irving Horowitz; Ed Swanson; Ed Tiryakian; Vic Lidz; Rainer Baum; Sam Klausner; Ben Nelson; and Vytautas Kavolis. He brought new blood to ASR discussions. Absent Roland, ASR annual conventions of the period, as well as the journal, might well have been markedly less interesting than in fact they were.
Roland, who supervised some dissertations, held as his highest degree the BSc. Roland, he of culturological anti-economism, held his degree in Economics. He was one of the last of those who held professorships based on intellectual mettle not credentialism. He engaged religion as part of an overall attempt to re-orient sociological theory on the whole; and his later turn to globalization was a part of this too. But I think we do well to remember his early work as well as the late.