My earliest research focused on the culture of local religious communities. In Congregations in Conflict I developed an argument that local religious culture is shaped by the imperatives of the larger institutional field, and that local religious cultures can be understood as bundles of core tasks and routines of action that serve as relatively stable solutions to problems of action characteristic of religious institutions -- the need to pass on religious traditions, generate member commitment, and witness core values to outsiders. In Religion and Family in a Changing Society I examined how local religious communities construct family ideals through both rhetoric and institutional routines of practice, finding unexpected commonalities between communities in liberal and conservative traditions. This work was part of a cultural turn in the sociology of religion which focused on the culture of the American religious institutional field rather than on long-term trans-historic dynamics (secularization theory) or individual "entrepreneurs" (market theories). This research was largely fieldwork based, and with the late Nancy Eiesland, I co-edited a reader showcasing the work of then up-and-coming young scholars focusing on ethnographic studies of contemporary religious communities.
I still engage in some research on contemporary religious communities, including work with Danielle Docka that uses a critical feminist lens to examine family norms in three urban religious communities. Also, I've conducted research with Derek Robey on how attempts to attract the de-churched are changing modes of worship, norms of commitment, and boundaries of membership in some liberal Protestant churches.
In recent years my research has shifted in focus. One series of projects takes as its focus the individual, and examines how individual religiosity shapes social and political attitudes, including a preference for distance from racial and religious outgroups. A second study examines contemporary cultural frameworks for understanding science, law, and religion, and tackles the question of when and how these come into conflict. In both of these projects, one using survey data and one drawing on focus group data, an emerging focus has been on 1) the politicization of religion and non-religion, and the implications of that for bias, prejudice, and stigmatization of the non-religious, religious minorities, and atheists, and 2) comparisons of how religious and non-religious persons understand contemporary cultural dilemmas.
My next research efforts will focus more broadly on the formation of what I call communities of value among both religious and non-religious Americans. Where do we come together to socialize and express our identities? How do people “plug in” to communities of various kinds, or create new ones? What are the implications for how both religion and non-religion anchor people’s identities, provide meaning and purpose, and foster civic engagement?