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Religion and political scientists

Le religieux des politistes

A socio-historical look on “inconvenient” objects in the discipline

Socio-histoire d’objets « encombrants » dans une discipline

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Published on Wednesday, February 15, 2023


The purpose of this workshop is to revisit the question of “religion” in political science, by assessing the ways in which the discipline has dealt with it (separately from debates about its definitions) over the past forty years. We wish to further discussions that were initiated in sociology (Lambert, Michelat, and Piette 1997; Béraud, Duriez, and Gasquet 2018) and developed more recently in political science (Jouanneau and Raison du Cleuziou 2012; Frégosi and Silhol 2017), towards a simultaneously epistemological and empirical work on the legitimacy and blind spots with such objects (Altglas and Wood 2018).



The aim is to further the work initiated in several collective discussions since the 1990s, from the Thematic Group "Religion, Democracy, Democratization" of the AFSP (French Political Science Association) between 1992 and 1998, to the comparative research group Croire et politique organized by the CERI between 2001 and 2003 (Capelle-Pogăcean, Michel, and Pace 2008), up to the Chair for the Study of Religion (CERI, Sciences Po) and the recent "International Observatory of Religion" (OIR, CERI and GSRL). Indeed, the workshop starts from the preliminary observation of the versatile place of "religion" in political science. Despite an apparent over-investment, linked to recent events (notably the 2015 attacks in France), the importance given to religious issues seems to be fading. There have been a small and uneven number of thematic sections dealing variously with "religion" at AFSP conferences over the past twenty years (none in 2002 and 2005, 4 in 2007, 2 in 2013, 1 in 2015, 4 out of 99 in 2017, none in 2019, 2 out of 66 in 2022).

Despite the high visibility of various "religious problems" for nearly thirty years (religious signs in schools, "cults", Religious Education, communal management of places of worship, radicalization, etc.), the scattered research works seem to follow cyclical or evolving interests. One cannot speak of an autonomous and legitimate sub-field of study in its own right, in political science. Yet, public institutions (ministries, European Commission, etc.) express periodically a demand of research and subjects of PhD dissertations can be a translation of this interest. While heightened debates and public problems tend to "autonomize" certain social representations (radicalization in prisons, clerical sexual abuse, the halal market, etc.) with respect to institutions, groups and what could be called a religious field (Beckford 1990), analyses rooted in political science remain relatively discrete.

The expression "inconvenient objects" condenses several dimensions. First, the metaphor allows us to refer to objects which, by their weight, shape, or volume, produce encumbrance in a space, hence the analogy of problematic objects in the space of an academic discipline. The analogy applies to the extent that the objects are left to professionals trained to handle them. For instance, researchers that tackle policies that deal with "religion" are often forced to think "outside" the sociology of religions (Jouanneau 2013; Ollion 2017). However, inconvenience is also a notion with moral connotations, close to a sense of embarrassment. This is acknowledged as a legacy of the secularization of academic disciplines at the Sorbonne at the end of the nineteenth century (Baubérot 2002), and of the longstanding logics of disciplinary specialization. A customary caution regarding these themes (Maître and Bourdieu 1993) manifests this embarrassment as well. However, other logics come into play, among which the generational characteristics of political scientists. On the one hand, the focus on subjects with a high institutional demand, such as (de-)radicalization, reduces the visibility of other, more traditional subjects, such as religions and democracy (Michel 1993) or militancy (Lagroye and Siméant-Germanos 2003; Fretel 2004). On the other hand, there is an obvious multiplication of works of research in which "religious" objects are intertwined, yet not always central: citizen mobilizations with a minority confessional component (Trucco 2015) or conservative (Geay 2014; Balas 2021; Della Sudda 2022), participatory devices and mosques (Torrekens 2012; O'Miel and Talpin 2015), Muslim religious elites (Dazey 2021), or discussions of "political theology" in the sociology of the state (Skornicki 2015), etc. These researchers, often at the beginning of their careers, are not always specialized on "religious" objects; they are interested in them on a temporary basis, as a part of a thesis investigation or during a post-doctoral contract, without necessarily conducting all their investigations on them.

In short, one could say that everyone talks about religion, but few study it. This paradox justifies analyzing the conditions of production of such knowledge by political scientists. Thus, we present the hypothesis of the specialization of studies on "religion" under constraints. This idea refers to forms of identification of individual careers with such objects by subjective factors (career path, publications, working groups...) and by objective factors (institutional orders, visibility in a field of study...). These constraints obey to different temporalities. In the long term, they are part of the conditions for the structuration and autonomy of political science as a discipline in France. In the medium term, one can include the formation of research groups specialized on religion (GIS, laboratories...), the cycles of media attention ("conspicuous religious signs", cults, etc.), as well as the orientations of professional careers. Finally, in the short term, the self-presentations of teaching and research staff, funded projects, CVs, or recruitment logics, exert other constraints.

For instance, in the 1990s and early 2000s in France, only a minority political scientists who worked on Islam was specialized in public issues related to "religion" . These conditions have changed for political scientists who have pursued doctoral studies since the 2010s, who address these issues in political sociology, political theory, policy analysis, or international relations. This reduction of the constraints towards individual specialization can occur independently from an increased visibility of objects (Islamist movements, gender issues and Catholicism...), at the risk of over-studying under the "securitizing" angle, for example, on Islam in Europe (Amiraux 2012).

Yet, existing works on political scientists and religion emphasize that both English-speaking (Kettell 2012; Barb 2018) and French-speaking (Frégosi and Silhol 2017) political sciences have long been interested in religion, throughout the structural evolutions of the discipline. Therefore, one must question the scattered treatments and changing valuations in the subfields of study, and even the ambiguities in terms of theoretical inscriptions and professional careers. This does not imply arguing for the creation of a new field of study but suggesting a collective reflection (Kettell 2015) on these "inconvenient" objects, using tools from science and technology studies, the sociological history of disciplines (Cohen 2017) and the sociological analysis of policy processes (de Galembert 2018). What variety of approaches, careers, and trends are encompassed by a "political scientists’ gaze on religion"? How does such knowledge on religion contribute to general questions in political science?

Two panels materialize this reflection. First, the purpose is to study the place of religious questions in political science, through the prism of their evolution and treatment in a socio-historical perspective. Second, the workshop questions the ways in which political scientists, as research and teaching professionals, situate themselves in relation to this theme: in particular, in relation to public orders and institutional constraints. Proposals should be based on original socio-historical, quantitative, or qualitative data.


Panel 1: Contributions to a socio-history of political science and religion

The socio-historical approach of the discipline can contribute to identify the pioneering studies and authors in the discipline as well as the focus on a "problematic", "sensitive" and/or "pathological" religion.

It is necessary to consider here the legal heritage of political science, as well as its relations with disciplines where “religious” issues have a noticeable place: sociology, anthropology, and history. The construction of canonical objects owes much to the heritage of academic legal discourse, and political science has considered the religious accordingly as an object "like any other". It represents one variable among others in the explanation of voting (Michelat and Simon 1977; Dargent 2021), of development (Badie 1986), of the construction of the State (Birnbaum 1985), or as a theme of political theory (Portelli 1974). However, few works of political science approach religious objects as such.

This panel will also provide the occasion to question empirically the lack of studies on “religion” in some sectors of the discipline, such as policy analysis (De Galembert 2018), in contrast with a high visibility in other sectors (sociology of social movements) and in other countries.

Similarly, the weight of areal studies can be an indication of ways to limit the study of “religion” to some variably identifiable cultural areas. In this respect, orientalist works, then the social sciences of the "Arab and Muslim worlds", have somehow anticipated and configured the study of Islamist mobilizations (Geisser 2012).

Panel 2: How does “religion” impose itself or fade away in political science works?

This panel focuses on works related to so-called religious objects in political science and on how they have been constructed, regarding democratization, political theory, international relations (Allès 2021), religious mobilizations, or secularism (Portier 2016). Contributions could tackle too the uses of religious analogy in works of political science, on objects such as "secular religions", communism or political parties (Pudal 1989).

Contributions may address how “religion” imposes itself in research, for example on agent practices in the administration of migrants (Darley 2014) or on the factors of activism in May 1968 (Pagis 2010). This also includes the study of the conditions of individual and collective specializations, as well as the trajectories of "exit from religion" in favor of other research themes. We can draw on the analysis of such trajectories and reconversions of the "first generation" of sociologists of religion in France (Lassave 2019).

In particular, we will welcome works of research that tackle the effects of the recognition of political science in "governmental knowledge" (Déloye, Ihl, and Joignant 2013), as well as the consequences of the political governance of such research on “religion”. Recently, three major issues seem to have concentrated political interest and most of calls for projects: Islam in Western countries, cults, and radicalization. Several dimensions can be tackled: political scientists having a consulting role for political authorities (ministries, central administrations, etc.), the logics of partnership and funding with public administrations, the enlistment of researchers in controversies (de Galembert 2009), research programs and PhD dissertation topics (Bréjon de Lavergnée and Teinturier 2017).

Conditions of participation

Proposals in French or in English (1 to 2 pages, .doc, .docx or .odt format) must include the title, the name(s), and the institutional affiliation of the author(s). They must present a research question and provide details on the empirical data used. Their relevance is connected mainly to one panel.

They should be sent to the following e-mail addresses: loic.le-pape@univ-paris1.fr and guillaume.silhol@unibo.it

before March, 17 2023.

They will be evaluated afterwards by the scientific committee.

We will expect a paper (35,000 signs maximum) before the conference.

Organizing committee

  • Loïc Le Pape, maître de conférences, CESSP (UMR 8209), Paris-1 Panthéon-Sorbonne
  • Guillaume Silhol, postdoctorant, Département de sciences politiques et sociales, Université de Bologne, Italie, associé à MESOPOLHIS (UMR 7064), Sciences Po Aix-en-Provence

Scientific committee

  • Franck Frégosi, directeur de recherches CNRS, GSRL (UMR 8582), EPHE - Paris-Sorbonne
  • Claire de Galembert, chargée de recherches CNRS HDR, ISP (UMR 7220), Université de Paris-Ouest-Nanterre-La Défense
  • Juliette Galonnier, maîtresse de conférences, CERI (UMR 7050), Sciences Po Paris
  • Vincent Geisser, chargé de recherches CNRS, IREMAM (UMR 7310), Aix-Marseille Université
  • Laurent Jeanpierre, professeur des universités, CESSP (UMR 8209), Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne
  • Yann Raison du Cleuziou, maître de conférences HDR, Institut de recherche Montesquieu (EA 7434), Université de Bordeaux
  • Isacco Turina, chercheur, Département de sciences politiques et sociales, Université de Bologne, Italie
  • Dilek Yankaya, maîtresse de conférences, MESOPOLHIS (UMR 7064), Sciences Po Aix-en-Provence


CESSP - Mesopolhis - Département SPS de l’Université de Bologne

8 juin 2023 (sous réserve), Université de Paris-1 Panthéon-Sorbonne


  • CESSP, Université de Paris-1 Panthéon-Sorbonne 14, rue Cujas
    Paris, France (75005)

Event attendance modalities

Full on-site event


  • Friday, March 17, 2023


  • science politique, religieux, socio-histoire disciplinaire, réflexivité


  • Guillaume Silhol
    courriel : guillaume [dot] silhol [at] unibo [dot] it

Information source

  • Guillaume Silhol
    courriel : guillaume [dot] silhol [at] unibo [dot] it


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Religion and political scientists », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, February 15, 2023, https://doi.org/10.58079/1ajo

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