In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sociological Approaches to Hinduism

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works on the Sociology of Religion
  • Reference Works on the Sociological Study of Hinduism
  • Journals
  • General Views on Hinduism as a Social System

Hinduism Sociological Approaches to Hinduism
Catherine Clementin-Ojha
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0129


The main concern of sociology of religion is to understand the role of religion in the construction of the social link as well as in the process of contemporary social change. To make Hinduism a subject for sociology, therefore, entails studying the religious beliefs, practices, and institutions of the Hindus in relation to other aspects of their society and culture. Such an approach is not altogether new. The first travelers and missionaries who came to India and, later, the British officials who ruled it collected a vast amount of information on its society and religions, providing an informal sociological description and analysis on the facts of Hinduism that should not be neglected. However, it is only from the beginning of the twentieth century that there has been a scholarly body of sociological studies of Hinduism and Hindu society. Hinduism is a complex phenomenon that requires a many-sided approach. Hence, the sociological method should be complementary to other approaches, such as history and anthropology. In fact, there is no sharp distinction between sociology of religion and social anthropology when these disciplines are applied to Indian studies. Both share many objects of study, and their methods also overlap to a certain extent. A serious sociological approach to Hinduism cannot fail to also consider the historical approach given the continuity between the present and the past in Indian society. This multifaceted approach is reflected in the scholarly works selected in this article. They bear on the two indigenous institutions around which the Hindus organize their social and religious identities: caste (jāti) and sect (sampradāya); see also the Oxford Bibliographies in Anthropology article Caste. A central feature of Indian society, the caste system is a type of social stratification inseparable from Hinduism and from its conception of hierarchy. This issue is surveyed in the Caste System as the Hindu Social Order. The many sects that compose Hinduism cannot be isolated from the society in which they originated. This issue is surveyed in Sociological Studies of Hindu Religious Groups. The discussion bears also on the way Hinduism informs mundane activities. The beliefs and practices of Hindus shape their social conditions, giving birth to new social ways of doing things. Hence, another key theme to consider is the Social Role of Hinduism. For other studies considering Hinduism both as a product of social interactions and as a force that influences social life, see Ethnographic and Sociological Definitions in the Oxford Bibliographies in Hinduism article Defining Hinduism. For the way Hinduism structures family and informs the social life of women, see the article Women in Hinduism.

Reference Works on the Sociology of Religion

Sociology of religion, a formal discipline that began in the late nineteenth century, is now an area of specialization of sociology, but, if considered from a historical perspective, it is apparent that the founders of sociology put religion at the very center of their studies, as seen in Weber 1968. The main concern of this approach is to understand the role of religion in the construction of the social link as well as its place in the process of contemporary social change. Another dimension is the comparative method. O’Toole 1984, Hervieu-Léger and Willaime 2001, and Azria and Hervieu Léger 2010 provide reliable introductions to the classical approaches of the discipline. The Oxford Bibliographies in Sociology article Religion by John Evans and Lindsay DePalma contains a detailed bibliography.

  • Azria, Régine, and Danièle Hervieu-Léger, eds. Dictionnaire des faits religieux. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2010.

    A collective critical dictionary of religious facts, written by specialists in the field, presenting in a clear and accessible language the main definitions, concepts, notions, and problematics of the social study of religions.

  • Hervieu-Léger, Danièle, and Jean-Paul Willaime. Sociologies et religion. Vol. 1, Approches classiques. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2001.

    Textbook for graduate students and research scholars presenting in a systematic way and analyzing in the intellectual context of their time the works and concepts of the classical authors who led the foundation of the sociology of religion (Marx and Engels, Tocqueville, Weber, Simmel, Durkheim, Helbwachs, Le Bras, Desroches).

  • O’Toole, Roger. Religion: Classic Sociological Approaches. McGraw-Hill Ryerson Series in Canadian Sociology. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1984.

    Textbook presenting in its first part the early conceptions of religion before the rise of sociology and in its second part the two contrasted sociological interpretations of the religious phenomenon proposed, respectively, by Durkheim and Weber, two of the main founding fathers of the discipline.

  • Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. 3 vols. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. New York: Bedminster, 1968.

    Reprinted in two volumes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978). Published posthumously in Germany in the early 1920s, it has become a constitutive part of the modern sociological imagination. Includes Weber’s analysis of charismatic authority, and his famous typologies of religious attitudes: world-flying mysticism, world-rejecting asceticism, and inner-worldly asceticism.

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