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Charles Taylors View on Social Change in A Secular Age

Germain McKenzie-Gonzalez
Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C.
Abstract
This paper is part of a broader study of the underlying sociological account of secularization in the West
in Charles Taylors thought. Taylors work on the subject consists of a meta-narrative that blends
together sociological, historical and philosophical approaches. Here I delineate Taylors sociological view
of social change and illustrate the manner in which its constitutive elements are influenced by his
philosophical orientation and assumptions. In a nutshell, social change is seen as caused by multiple
material and non material factors, the analysis of which should avoid the generalizations of allencompassing theories, and for which the notion of social imaginary is key in articulating social
dynamics with individual motivations. Taylors philosophical views on the hermeneutic nature of the
social sciences are an important framework for his views on social change.
Keywords: Secularization, Secularization Theories, Social Change.
1. Introduction
This paper is aimed at exploring the view on social change that is implied in Charles Taylors account of
secularization in the West. His master-narrative is formed by three intertwined threads: historical,
sociological and philosophical (this last one particularly in regard to human motivation). 1 However, it
seems legitimate to ask about the specific sociological underpinnings of Taylors account and, within
them, the ways he understands the process of secularization as social change. When needed, references
to his philosophical views will be made to provide a better understanding of his narrative.
I will pursue the above-described goal by showing in the first place the views on social change implicit in
the two most well-known theories on secularization, as well as Taylors critique of them. I believe it is
against this background that the particular features of the Taylorean view could be better appreciated,
including his approach to social change.
2. Opposed Theories of Secularization
Generally speaking, one could classify the theories of secularization into three groups: the orthodox or
received model, the counter-orthodox model (constituted by rational choice theory applied to
religion) and different kinds of revisionist approaches to the orthodox account.
2.1. The OrthodoxModel
1

Cf. Akbar Ganji in Conversation with Charles Taylor, in http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2008/12/23/akbarganji-in-conversation-with-charles-taylor/ (accessed on November 13, 2012).

(a) This paradigm affirms, in essence, that the social changes that came about in the West with
modernity corrode religious beliefs, religious practices, as well as religious organizations and, overall,
the social functions religion achieves. Even when some of the scholars who maintain this view recognize
in theory that secularization may not be an irreversible process, they affirm that such a regression is
very unlikely to occur. Because of the geographical area where it originated, this paradigm deals mainly
with Christianity.
British scholar Steve Bruce gives a good summary of this model in his work God is Dead. Secularization in
the West, one which he defends still at present (cf. Chart 1). For him, secularization is a long-term
process of decline of religion, specifically in its social power, popularity and prestige, as well as in its
belief and social practices. 2 This is a consequence of the elements that constitute modernity. 3 The
changes modernization brings about cause religion to mutate in such a way that it loses significance.
Moreover, this decline itself carries with it a decline in the plausibility of religious beliefs. Changes at
the structural and cultural level bring about changes in religious vitality that we see in the declining
proportion of people who hold conventional religious beliefs. The bottom line is this: individualism,
diversity and egalitarianism in the context of liberal democracy undermine the authority of religious
beliefs. 4
What kinds of changes were these? Bruce links all of them with the apparition of Protestantism in a way
that resembles Weber. Through this phenomenon, three trends came to life. (1) At the rational level,
monotheistic faith was replaced by rationality, which turned into science and technology. This does not
mean that reason and religion were mutually exclusive, but that naturalistic ways of thinking about the
world prevailed. (2) At the social and economic levels, Protestant ethics encouraged industrial capitalism
and economic growth. These factors in turn gave rise to structural differentiation (in the sense of the
breaking of social life into different and autonomous realms governed by instrumental reason) and
social differentiation (meaning that the different social classes and the more fluid social mobility
brought about the fragmentation of communal conceptions of the moral and supernatural orders). In
this way, religious pluralism and egalitarianism appeared, leading to relativism and privatization of faith.
(3) At the level of religious organizations, the trend went from Protestant individualism to a propensity
to schism, leading to the phenomena of sects and stressing the fact of voluntary rather than ascribed
participation. 5 All the mentioned factors concur as mediate or immediate causes for secularization.
However, Bruce points out that each of them is not sufficient per se but requires the action of the
others, and that they are not necessarily enduring, since once they come to life, they continue on their
own rather than remaining dependant on what originated them. 6
2

Cf. Steve Bruce, God is Dead. Secularization in the West (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 3.

Cf. Ibid., 2.

Ibid., 30.

Cf. Ibid., 1-30.

Cf. Ibid., 5.

In Bruces view, the most powerful secularizing factors are religious pluralism, privatization and
relativism, which he sees closely linked together. In this view he is indebted to Peter Bergers and
Thomas Luckmanns book The Social Construction of Reality. 7 He thinks that our ideas are made more or
less persuasive due to the action of social interests and social relationships. It is a mistake to assume
that ideas and observations are of themselves persuasive or that, while we need to explain why people
hold some false beliefs, somehow the truth stands in no need of explanation. 8 As a consequence, the
breaking down by religious pluralism of a common religious view shared by the whole of society and
of the monopoly of religious institutions which embodied it, had a strong impact on the way we as
individuals are concerned with what standing and what reach we accord to our own ideas and how we
view those who disagree with us. 9 We are faced with a world, which flies away from authoritative
assertions, in which a number of incompatible religious beliefs share the stage. Even when we try to live
our own religious commitments privately (privatization), this does not preclude the appearance of
doubts about our own beliefs soundness and about their universal validity. This leads to relativism as a
cognitive style since we assume that what is true for us in religious matters may not be true for
everybody else, and, as a consequence, our religious commitment is weakened. 10
Even when Bruce sees counter-tendencies as cultural defense or cultural transition, the consequences of
secularization are unavoidable. The removal of support at the level of social structure has a
corresponding effect on the social psychology of belief. The dogmatic certainties of the church and sect
are replaced by the weak affirmations of the denomination and the cult. 11
Bruce is the author who has more thoroughly thought about the aspects implied in the orthodox
paradigm of secularization since he has espoused it since the 80s to the present, and because of his
intense involvement in the debate. He sees this paradigm much more like a set of clusters that work well
together rather than a unified theory. He also takes pains in explaining what this paradigm does not
affirm and clarifies some misunderstandings. Secularization is neither universal nor inevitable, nor does
follow an evolutionary path that may be liberating, nor is its methodology weak, nor must the process
have an even trajectory, nor is the endpoint atheism. 12 However, he does think that the secularization
process, once initiated, is irreversible, and leads to religious marginalization: As I expect that ideologies
that lose relevance will also lose plausibility, I see the popularity of religious beliefs as a useful index of

Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of
Knowledge. Garden City, New York: Anchor, 1966.
8

Steve Bruce, God is Dead, op. cit., 26.

Ibid., 29.

10

Loc. cit. Cf. also Ibid., 140-150 (Chapter 7).

11

Ibid., 36.

12

Cf. ibid., 37-44.

secularization. I expect the proportion of people who are largely indifferent to religious ideas to increase
and the seriously religious to become a minority. 13
(b) At this point, lets ask ourselves about the process of social change at work here. Although it is not
linear but multi-linear, it is certainly irreversible, which means that it is also developmental in the
sense that each stage accumulates the effects of the previous ones. The causes of the process are wholly
internal to it (endogenous), operating very much at the societal level and pressing changes at the level
of religious organizations and the life of individuals. However Bruce mentions religious pluralism,
relativism and privatization as the key forces in the decline and marginalization of religion, the
underlying factors driving religion out are science and technology (in which he follows Bryan Wilson),
and their impact in the way humans understand themselves and the world. Since religion is a social
construct that remains operative inasmuch as it retains some social function, there is no more place for
it now that science accomplished the same functions even better. The outcome of secularization is a
new situation, qualitatively different in regard to the place of religion in human life and society. People
have been unaware of the social process here described, which seems to leave very little room for
human agency.
In his book A Secular Age, Taylor strongly criticizes this approach from various perspectives. Among
them, he affirms that religious motivation is operative per se in human life, and not as a by-product of
other forces (these being social, psychological or other), nor as epi-phenomenal, that is, as being kept
alive in human existence by other functions other than religious ones. 14 If the role of meaning
provision religion accomplishes is threatened by science, if the universality of religious claims is
challenged by rationality, this should not necessarily conduce to the demise of the role of religion in our
time. There may well be a properly religious operation accomplished by religion, at least in the selfunderstanding of individuals and groups which may still be sought after by people. In this he is at odds
with the early thought of Peter Berger, as well as with that of Thomas Luckmann, Steve Bruce, Bryan
Wilson and others. His reason relies not upon the assumption of the existence of a kind of religious
dimension in all human beings but on a methodological point: the fact that the social sciences should
take human motivation as it presents itself and should avoid interpreting it as something else because it
regards it to be delusive. 15
Taylor takes a thoroughly interpretive stance towards the social sciences. His view is that whereas in the
natural sciences there is just one hermeneutic process at work (that of the scientist who seeks to
understand the object of study), in the social sciences we have two: on the one hand, the selfinterpretation human individuals give to themselves (which can be extended to sub-cultures and
cultures as sharing self-interpretations of particular social groups) and, on the other hand, the
13

Ibid., 43.

14

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap, 2007), 436. (Hereafter abbreviated SA). For other
critiques on the orthodox model cf. SA, 428-29 and 551-580.
15

Cf. SA, 436.

interpretation a scientist gives of a social fact. In Taylors view, any effort for understanding in social
sciences should avoid both, taking for granted the particular explanation given by the social agent, and
just bypassing it as irrelevant. Taylors claim is that the social scientist must take these interpretations
[of the social agent] into account when trying to explain people and their behavior. 16
Given the fact that human self-understandings vary in time, Taylor would affirm that social theories
should change accordingly. 17 In the end, he argues that social sciences are necessarily open-ended
hermeneutical endeavors and that the sort of knowledge they yield is inevitably more uncertain and
labile than the knowledge aspired to by the natural sciences. 18 In this view, particular social theories
are better than others in that they give a more comprehensive and perspicuous account of phenomena.
Just in passing, I would mention here that another philosophical position held by Taylor that would
coincide in the critique described above is the idea of falsiable realism which he professes.
2.2. The Counter-Orthodox Model
(a) The reaction to the previously described paradigm is well known, especially in the United States.
Rodney Starks article Secularization RIP is eloquent in this regard. 19 His argument is shared by other
authors such as Roger Finke, William S. Bainbridge, and Lawrence Ianaconne, which are commonly
called representatives of the rational choice theory applied to religion (RCT).
RCT theorists developed an understanding of religion and of the way it is lived by individual persons,
groups, and society as a whole (the religious economy). In regard to secularization, an important
novelty this theory brought to the debate was the assimilation of churches and other religious
organizations to the supply side of the religious economy, while identifying individual persons with the
demand side, and assuming their rational search for other-worldly rewards as being constant. 20 If
religious decline occurs, it should be credited to organizational or societal roots.
In this light, any process of secularization is seen as a self-limiting process, characterized by a
cost/benefit calculus (cf. Chart 2). The impact of science challenges religions in a way in which they are
forced to purify their own doctrines, rites and mores from all those elements that now can be
interpreted in a mere naturalistic way. This is called internal secularization. In this way, a number of
spiritual compensators once offered by religious bodies wane. However, other-worldly supernatural
compensators are, perforce, beyond the scope of science (e.g., the afterlife), so they remain as a
16

Ruth Abbey, Charles Taylor. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 154.

17

Cf. Charles Taylor, Philosophical Papers II, op. cit., 1-3.

18

Ruth Abbey, op. cit., 155.

19

Cf. Rodney Stark, Secularization, R.I.P., in Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith. Explaining the
Human Side of Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 57-79.
20

Cf. Ibid., 83-113.

patrimony of religion and are very much sought after. Other spiritual goods such as providing meaning
to life and suffering also remain attractive in the realm of religion. In this way, churches that supply
them compete more favorably in the religious market than those who have gone a long way in their
internal secularization. This situation also triggers intents of renewal within churches in the process of
self-secularization, which are called sects, aimed at the revival of those churches. It also nurtures the
apparition of brand new religious bodies that create innovative religious forms, which are called cults.
In any event, self-secularization puts into work a church to sect/cult dynamic that sets limits to it. This
dynamic is an ongoing one, so secularization is always kept between boundaries, turning it into a selflimiting reality. 21
One of the most contrasting elements in this theory in regard to the orthodox paradigm is that, in an
opposite approach, religious pluralism is seen as promoting religious competition among religious
organizations within the market so that in the end, religious vitality is maintained and even
increased. 22
(b) If we ask, as before, how the processes of social change operate in this approach, one should first say
that RCT appears to be a closed-system approach aimed at the explanation of religion in general
regardless of time, geographical or cultural settings. 23 For reasons not explicitly mentioned by RCTs
authors, but ones that one can suppose, a change in the system occurred in the West, which did not
completely transform it, but imposed a religious monopoly. The secularization process, in a sense,
entails the restoration of the system into its more efficient outlook. This process of change is nonlinear and reversible. The qualitative transformation that came about with it was the establishment of
religious pluralism and, consequently, of a religious free market. The forces that drive the social
process are endogenous to it, most likely manifest to the agents, and rooted in the human desire to
freely choose the kind of other-worldly spiritual compensator people see fit. RCT gives much room for
human agency inasmuch as religious choice is at its basis. It also gives a prominent role to volunteer
religious mobilization by individuals into organizations. This very same human agency is also
responsible for making secularization a self-limiting process (through the church to sect/cult dynamic),
although this outcome as such is latent to the agents. Like other closed-structural systems, processes of
social change within RCTs account of secularization are focused on the preservation of the system,
establishing equilibrium and safeguarding functionality in time.
Taylors critique of RCT has not been explicitly developed. Not a word is mentioned about it (nor to the
work of its proponents) in A Secular Age. One needs to go into other texts by him to uncover what his

21

Cf. Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, The Future of Religion. Secularization, Revival and Cult
Formation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 429-456. These pages correspond to the chapter titled
Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation.
22

Cf. Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith. Explaining the Human Side of Religion, op. cit., 193-217.

23

Cf. Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, A Theory of Religion. New Brunswick, NY: Rutgers
University Press, 1987.

position may be. An important disagreement he refers to is the idea of closed-systems in the social
sciences (which are foundational in functionalist-structuralist approaches as well as in RCT).
In developing his philosophical project, Taylor has consistently been critical of any view of the social
sciences that puts aside what he sees as an ontological feature of human beings: that of being selfdefining animals, persons who continuously interpret themselves. 24 Self-interpretations de facto change
in human lives, and affect human social behavior: practices, institutions, ideals in society. This makes the
social science enterprise, necessarily and always, an open-ended one, as it has been said. Hence, in
Taylors view, any social theory that would intend to delineate a closed system and place its object of
study within is doomed to fail. Any aspiration to identify and anticipate which social variables would
remain constant and which would change, and in this way allow the scientist to work with all the
variable combinations of change and stability in such a system and predict knowledge, would entail to
have explicited so clearly the human condition that one would already have pre-empted all cultural
innovation and transformation. This is hardly in the bounds of the possible 25
Another idea by Taylor that would strengthen his disagreement with RCT theorists is his view on human
choice, particularly on moral goods (among which religious options should be found). He sees moral
frameworks as a series of beliefs that gives overall shape and direction to a persons values and moral
options. 26 They are constitutive of human agency. Because of this, the act of human choice per se is
also strongly affected by self-interpretation, so it would be difficult to generalize some of the
assumptions RCT theorists consider as constants in the determination of human choice, and even more
difficult across cultures. 27
3. Taylors Revisionist Account
(a) There are several revisionist accounts of secularization, among which one could mention the works
by Thomas Luckmann, 28 David Martin, 29 Richard Fenn, 30 Marc Chaves 31 and Jose Casanova. 32 Taylor

24

Cf. Charles Taylor, Philosophical Papers II: Philosophy and the Human Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1985), 55.
25

Op. cit., 57.

26

Ruth Abbey, op. cit., 33.

27

Cf. Ibid., 35-53.

28

Cf. Thomas Luckmann, The Invisible Religion. The Problem of Religion in Modern Society (New York London: Collier Macmillan, 1967), 23.
29

Cf. David Martin, A General Theory of Secularization. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1978 and
David Martin, On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005.
30

Cf. Richard K. Fenn, Toward a Theory of Secularization. Ellington, Connecticut: The Society for the
Scientific Study of Religion, 1978.

himself can also be considered part of this group. Their common characteristic is that they share with
the orthodox position a perception of religious decline in individual commitment to organized religion
and of certain loss of its social importance. However, in different ways they would see religion changing
and persisting through new forms, these being invisible religion, Pentecostalism, NRMs and the like.
In Taylors case, along with the recognition of a religious decline of past religious forms, one finds him
affirming there new ones have appeared in the individual/communal and private/public dimensions.
Besides, Taylor holds true that religion is no longer entangled with political systems, but at the same
time he recognizes it is not marginalized in society: it de facto plays a role in the public sphere when it
legitimizes particular individuals and minorities and their political identities. 33
All these revisionist accounts do not share the counter-orthodox account, however. They do not
agree on RCTs theory of religion as a whole or with its explanations of religious phenomena in specific
cultural contexts, among other topics. They do seem to agree on the fact that religious pluralism, in
given cultural contexts, promotes religion instead of provoking its demise.
(b) Taylors account can be characterized, in a very schematic way, by three parallel pillars that are
closely inter-related: one counting on material factors for social change (social facts, constraints),
another on non-material causes (ideas, values, religious beliefs), and a final one giving an account of
human self-understanding both at the individual and social levels (cf. Chart 3). It also presents three
phases in time, with two transitions (or cultural upheavals) happening one by the end of the 19th and
beginning of the 20th century, and the other one from the post-WWII times on. For Taylor, a key starting
point of the secularization process is to be found in the scientific revolution of the 18th century, which in
his view is important not because science would prove religion wrong (something with which he does
not agree) but because of the vast cultural changes it unleashes.
In the first place, Taylor clearly states that it is not possible to explain the current secularized situation in
the West just by means of material factors such as structural differentiation, autonomization,
rationalization, urbanization, etc., however important they may be. Other material factors would be the
ways in which society is put together, passing from the Ancien Regime form to that of the Age of
Mobilization to that of the Age of Authenticity. In a parallel fashion, the way religions relationship with
the political system changes is described through the paleo-, neo- and post-Durkhemian phases, which
are also material causes, the same as the policies of reform put in place both by Catholic and Protestant
churches from the 16th century on.

31

Cf. Mark Chaves, Secularization as Declining Religious Authority, Social Forces 72, no. 3 (March 1994):

32

Cf. Jose Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.

33

Cf. SA, 426. Also Jose Casanova, Public Religions. Cited in SA, 426, note 7.

749-774.

These kind of factors do play their part, but wouldnt bear their fruit without the apparition of what he
calls exclusive humanism: a view on human flourishing without any reference to the supernatural. 34 It
was indispensable, affirms Taylor, that this view should become not only theoretically available, but also
accessible not only to the elites but also to the masses. Exclusive humanism thus described entails a
big change at the level of human self-understanding, which is consistent with the importance he gives to
this issue in human life, as has been explained above. Hence, he takes pains in explaining how
Providential Deism, the ideal of the Modern Moral Order, and the influx of 19th century Romanticism
constitute building blocks for the exclusive humanist option to take flesh and become plausible. In
parallel, he also shows the ways in which its triumph is not complete in the West, but fragile.
The outcomes of the secularizing process in the West could be summarized as having severed any
establishment of religion within the political system (Secularity 1), having precipitated the decline of
individual religious participation in organized religion, as well as having diminished the social relevance
of some religious organizations (Secularity 2). However, this last event is counter-balanced by the new
ways of personal and communal religious options that have appeared. Besides, at the level of the life of
ordinary people, it means they live within an immanent frame, feeling the solicitation of both the
exclusive humanist pole and the religious transformative one, both ends of a spectrum, both
questioning and fragilizing each other. Being thus cross-pressured, most persons in the West remain in a
somewhat middle zone, shifting positions during their lifetimes, uncertain about assuming strong
commitments with any pole (Secularity 3). 35
(c) An original aspect of Taylors account is the way in which he links the material and non-material
causes with (individual and social) self-understanding by means of what he calls social imaginaries, a
notion he develops inspired by Benedict Anderson and Bronislaw Baczko. 36 Social imaginaries should not
be confused with social theory. They are simply ways in which ordinary people imagine their social
surroundings, which is not mainly done through theoretical language but in images, legends and stories.
They are, then, shared by large groups of people. Lastly, social imaginaries allow a common
understanding that gives sense to a set of common practices and produces a shared sense of
legitimacy. 37 For example, key features of the modern social imaginary are, according to Taylor, the
people as sovereign, the public sphere, and the market.
At each step of the secularizing process he describes, social imaginaries take elements from the material
and non-material causes at work as their sources, and produce a given shared self-understanding, which
34

Cf. SA, 299-419.

35

Cf. SA, 435.

36

Cf. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.
London New York: Verso, 2006; Bronislaw Baczko, Les imaginaires sociaux. Mmoires et espoirs collectifs. Paris:
Payot, 1984.
37

Cf. SA, 171-72. Also Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham London: Duke University
Press, 2004, 23-30. Most parts of this work are already contained in SA.

is linked with concrete shared practices. The process entails a not thoroughly described dynamic
between elites and masses. Thus, for example, exclusive humanism was first espoused by the elites,
and gradually diffused into the masses through public education systems and military service, and
practices inspired by it were inculcated through laws and a stronger and more dirigiste political
system. 38 However, top-to-bottom diffusion is not the only way in which social imaginaries change.
For instance, the increased awareness of the egalitarian ideal or about the possibility of mobilizing social
groups was also due to the massive apparition of proletariat masses in the cities because of
industrialization. It was from them that the elites received real-life insights and practices that would
shape their self-understanding in time.
Moreover, newer social imaginaries may make use of practices, symbols and stories of older ones and
appropriate/reinterpret them, as what happened in the American Revolution with the practice of selfgovernment through Assemblies by the Thirteen Colonies, which was transformed into the work of the
Congress. They also create brand new social practices. 39 Taylor sees the United States case as the last
phase of the long march: on the one hand, the extension of the new social imaginary below and beyond
the social elites who originally adopted it; and on the other, the extension of the principles of this new
imaginary to other levels and niches of social life. 40
All this notwithstanding, it is important to keep in mind that the spread of exclusive humanism, which
is key for secularization in the West to occur, is mainly, it seems to me, a process of diffusion from the
elites into the masses.
(d) What approach to the process of social change is at work in Taylors view? I think the answer
presents the following elements.

The process is directional both in its material and non-material aspects up to the present time. It
is not necessarily irreversible, but although in some aspects it may go back, in toto this is very
unlikely. Although cumulative in some aspects, in others the past stages have not been
completely superseded but are still present, although in changed ways, as one sees with regard
to transformative religion, which keeps living in tension and mutual fragilization with exclusive
humanism.
Having said this, however, the future of the process does not appear to be aimed in any
particular direction. This is why, I think, he affirms, when speaking of secularization, that it is a
non-linear, zigzag-shaped process, one full of unintended consequences. 41
The driving forces of the process of social change are located within the material aspects of the
process. In regard to the non-material ones, causes come both from within and without: the
38

Cf. Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, op. cit., 42, 45-46.

39

Cf. Ibid., 109-113.

40

Ibid., 147.

41

Cf. SA, 95.

10

first case applies to the development of exclusive humanism as a plausible option for human
life, available to all; the second, to the reactions and adaptation that take place in
transformative religion.
The outcome of secularization has been a kind of morphogenesis: a qualitative change in
religion itself and in the way the sacred is located within personal and social life (e. g. the
immanent frame).
Human agents have not been aware of the process at the material level, but it has been very
much manifest in regard to the non-material aspects, particularly within the elites (intellectuals).
Causation processes seem to be concrete, contingent and involve many factors in Taylors view.
As we have seen, his account vouches for a multi-causal approach, in which material
conditions such as technology, economics, politics, demographics and stratification as well
as non material ones such as religion and ideology are potentially independent variables
that may influence each other and the life course of society.
The criteria for choosing causal factors depends on the characteristics of phenomena localized in
time (e.g. the last 200 years) and space (e.g. North Atlantic countries). He mistrusts allencompassing sociological approaches to social change due to the highly complex analysis they
entail, which makes them prone either to provide generalizations that are very difficult to prove
or to propose too simplistic accounts of localized phenomena.
He would affirm that social change should be interpreted by taking into account not only social
mega-trends (as sociology does) but also their embodiment in life (e. g. practices, institutions,
arts), for which history is the gateway. Besides, attention to human motivation in such a
particular time and location should be given. 42

Human agency is very much stressed both in its spontaneous (e.g. mobilization, search for
authenticity) and planned fashions (e.g. reform initiatives within Christianity). It is so, moreover,
because of his conviction that human self-understanding (e. g. porous and buffered selves)
and social imaginaries play a key role in shaping social changes. Both individual and group
actions are taken very seriously.

Taylors view of social change is remarkably close to two relatively recent orientations within sociology
in which human agency and historical research are stressed (as in the so-called historical sociology).
Exponents of the first trend of thought are Amitai Etzioni, Alain Touraine, Anthony Giddens and
Margaret Archer. Proponents of the second one are Norbert Elias, Philip Abrams, Charles Tilly and
Christopher Lloyd.
Within these currents of thought, the focus of study is on more concrete accounts of timed and localized
social changes, produced by identifiable actors, individual or collective. Sociology asks for the help of
history. Causation is concrete, contingent and involves many factors. The direction, speed and goals of
42

Cf. Akbar Ganji in Conversation with Charles Taylor, in http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2008/12/23/akbarganji-in-conversation-with-charles-taylor/ (accessed on November 13, 2012).

11

social change are to be found within the confluence and struggles between human actors. Society as
such tends to become de-reified and sees much more as fluid and constituted by inter-human
relationships. Action happens within structures that both shape and are shaped by human actors, who
in turn are its products and its producers. 43
However, Taylors account seems to be more inspired by his own philosophical assumptions, or by the
spirit of his time, than by the influx of sociologists who may have espoused the above-described view. In
this regard, he only cites, for the specific topic of the rise of the disciplinary society, a book by Norbert
Elias 44 and no one else among the most important of the representatives of historical sociology.
4. Conclusions
From the stand point of social change, one can say that Taylors account consistently applies a model of
social change in which (1) macro-trends at the material and non-material realms, which operate at the
societal level in the West, are (2) intertwined with the social imaginary of countries, regions, and groups,
as well as in the self-understanding of individuals. In this way, the process of secularization is deflected
in ways that depend on more localized social and cultural contexts.
In many ways, Taylors view of social change is similar to that of historical sociology, although this
seems to be more of a coincidence than evidence of it having an influence on him.
Taylors complex understanding of social change parallels the greater complexity of his account of
secularization in the West vis--vis the previously proposed theories. In this context, there are many
more possibilities for correlating the variables at play both at the macro-, meso- and micro-levels of
analysis, through the conjoined use of macro-trends and social imaginaries. He gives examples of how
this kind of analysis can take many diverse paths when explaining the development of modernity and
socio-cultural impact as he does in A Secular Age and in Modern Social Imaginaries. Among them I
have mentioned schemes such as diffusion, bottom up impact, and the reappropriation/reinterpretation of previous social imaginaries into new ones. However, there is still a
need to assess these relationships in a more analytical fashion from a sociological standpoint.

137-142.

43

Cf. Piotr Szrompka, The Sociology of Social Change. (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994), 191-212.

44

Cf. Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, Oxford: Blackwell, 1994. Taylor is inspired by this work in SA,

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Appendix

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Chart 1

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Chart 2

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Chart 3

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