Scholar's Top 5: Oliver Krüger on Studying the normative impact of Internet research

From the very beginning the research on religion on the Internet has been lead by strong normative and utopian paradigms. Schofield Clark saw the Internet as a harbinger of a new “protestantization” of all religions globally and Helland predicted the end of hierarchies in religions, comparing the experience of virtual community to the state of communitas (total equality) in Victor Turner’s concept of rites de passage. Gary Bunt expected a revolutionary / liberal movement within Islam, since the role of traditional religious leaders might be challenged via the Internet.

These visions of liberty were in line with utopias of cyber- and new age-philosophy, receiving the Internet as the realization of the so called noosphere. This idea of a global mind sphere was borrowed by Marshall McLuhan from the Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin. On this way media theory received a humanist respectively a religious community ideal which was established in the age of enlightenment, and which was still influential on sociologists like Manuel Castells linking the “noopolitics” to the rise of the Internet.

In our research we did not remain unaffected by these utopian ideals. This is natural since we are a part of this society. I believe that a methodological consideration may establish the necessary distance to these normative paradigms. For the study of religion on the Internet I would like to pledge firstly for a more sophisticated approach: instead of focusing on a general “impact of the Internet” it seems to be more promising to take into account the modes of perception/usage of the Internet in different religious constellations. Secondly, the lack of profound changes in the religious landscape (despite the spread of the Internet) might be an opportunity for a deeper reflection on our definitions of religion. The relation between intellectual dimensions of religion (knowledge, ideas, belief systems) and dimensions of action (ethics, ritual) have to be considered anew.

Below are 5 recommended sources for studying normative claims and utopian discourses regarding the internet.

1. Connolly, Randy (2001): The Rise and Persistence of the Technological Community Ideal. In: Online Communities. Commerce, Community Action and the Virtual University, hg. von Chris Werry & Miranda Mowbray. Upper Saddle River [u.a.]: Prentice Hall PTR, 317-364

This article is outstanding. Connolly depicts the continuity of community ideals linked to technological innovations starting with 18th century channels, going on with the telegraph, phone, television, Internet. In all these cases the community ideal of a brotherhood of all men (and women) was articulated.

2. Ayaß, Ruth (2012): Media Structures of the Life-World, in: Staudigl, Michael (Hrsg.), Alfred Schutz. A Phenomenological Hermeneutics of the Social World. Dordrecht: Springer

Ayaß is a sociologist of communication and here she adresses a fundamental problem of the conception of the life-world (Lebenswelt) by Alfred Schütz (and thereafter the sociological school of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann). While the life-world is according to Schütz mainly based on face-to-face communication, Ayass argues to include communication via media as part of the daily life-world.

3. Katz, Elihu & David Foulkes (1962): On the use of mass media as „escape“: Clarification of a concept. In: Public Opinion Quarterly 26/3, 377-388

This article marks the starting point of all media reception research, and a counterpoint to McLuhan’s essentialist determiniation of constant media effects inherent to certain media. They ask „ … the question (is) not ‚what do the media do to people?’ but, rather, ‚What do people do with the media’.“

4. Friedrich Kittler (1999): Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Stanford (=Grammophon Film Typewriter. Berlin 1986)

Kittler (1943-2011) was a German literary scholar and media theorist, he also taught in Berkeley, Santa Barbara, Stanford, Yale and Columbia. He introduced a sophisticated and innovative perspective on the cultural and social history of media. This book is a classic.

5. Pasche, Florence (2008): Some methodological reflections about the study of religions on video sharing websites. In: Marburg Journal of Religion 13/1,

As far as I can see, this is the first article dealing with religion on video sharing websites, a field that I consider to be as important for religions as the social networks.