Current Research

My primary long-term research interest is the Human Personhood and Social Sciences Project (HP). This project is exploring non-reductionistic accounts of the nature of the human person as they relate to the work of the social sciences. The project integrates interdisciplinary scholarship in sociology, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy to address key questions toward developing better theoretical models of the nature of human personhood in ways that might improve theoretical and empirical work in the social sciences. This theoretical approach I call critical realist personalism, or simply personalism for short. My research in this area so far has resulted in the publication of two books, What is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up and To Flourish or Destruct: A Personalist Theory of Human Goods, Motivations, Failure, and Evil. Prior to the critical realist stage of this inquiry, my interest in personhood was examined in my 2003 book, Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture. I am now moving this project forward by exploring both religion and culture from the social-theoretical perspective of personalism.

Closely related to my human personhood scholarship and my development of personalist social theory is my ongoing involvement in the Critical Realism in U.S. Social Science Project. This initiative is based out of Yale University and entails close collaborations with fellow critical realists such as Phil Gorski (Yale), George Steinmetz (Michigan), and Doug Porpora (Drexel), as well as Margaret Archer (Warwick, UK) and Alan Norrie (Warkwick, UK), among others. Critical realism as an under-laboring meta-theory of (social) science insists on holding together ontological realism, epistemological perspectivalism, and judgmental rationality. My goal in this project is to challenge positivist empiricism as the dominant operative philosophy of social science in the U.S. today, as well as the negative influences of postmodernist anti-realism and the underachieving aspirations of hermeneutical interpretivism on questions of causation and explanation, toward the improvement of social science understanding and its more coherent integration with all forms of human knowledge (See my related webpage on Learning Critical Realism.)

Another of my primary research projects, first developed in 1999, has been the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR). Funded by Lilly Endowment Inc., the NSYR has investigated the religious and spiritual practices, beliefs, and commitments of contemporary U.S. adolescents and emerging adults. The role of religion in shaping the lives of American youth has been inadequately understood and appreciated by many of the people, communities, and scholars who work with and study youth. This longitudinal project has employed a mix of survey and interview methods to examine the influences of religious commitments and practices in shaping the social, moral, and spiritual lives and outcomes of American youth. It has provided the first nationally-representative, broad, descriptive mapping of the religious beliefs, commitments, and practices of U.S. youth and emerging adults over time. The NSYR completed its fourth and final wave of data collection with the 24-29 year old survey and interview respondents in 2014. This project has produced multiple books, including Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers and Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. 

Another of my recently completed research projects is the Science of Generosity initiative. Its aim was to stimulate scientific research on the practice of generosity in human life and society. This project was funded by the John Templeton Foundation and supported a request-for-proposals initiative and original research on generosity. The request for proposals initiative awarded $3 million in grant-funded research projects in such disciplines as sociology, behavioral economics, political science, and social psychology. The original data collection project investigates patterns and dynamics of religious and charitable giving in the U.S. Along with my co-author, Hilary Davidson, I published from this project the book, The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose.

An older research project that I initiated and led was the Religion Survey Data Expansion Project (RelSDEP). RelSDEP was designed to increase the availability of a large number of top quality survey dataset resources for the study of religion and spirituality, and to increase the number of capable social science scholars analyzing religious and spiritual factors in the operation of human social life. I led a collaborative project committee of highly experienced social science survey researchers with interests in religion and spirituality to comparatively evaluate the merits of specific new or revised religion and spirituality survey questions and investigate well established, high quality, and highly respected existing surveys on which these questions were then placed.

Another of my older research projects was the Northern Indiana Congregation Study (NICS). NICS studied the complexities of religious organizational involvements by examining religious congregations ethnographically. Data collection efforts consisted of participant observations of religious congregation services, meetings, events, and groups, and in-person interviews with pastors, priests, parishioners,financial officers, lay leaders, youth who participate in activities of the church, and their parents. The project was a locally-based extension of both the NSYR and the Science of Generosity projects, and connected in-depth ethnographic research on the attitudes and practices of American Christians to large-scale nationally representative findings on religious involvement and religiousness more generally. The project focused its investigation on how people think about what it means to be involved in their churches and other religious congregations, including youth activities and giving support via time and money.