Robert WUTHNOW. Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith. London, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 247. $29.95 hardcover ISBN 9780190258900. (Also e-book). Reviewed by Meg Wilkes KARRAKER, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN 55105.
I received excellent graduate training in research methods, especially survey research, for my Master of Science at North Carolina State University and for my Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Minnesota, thanks to Glen McCann and Roberta Simmons. Many (many!) years later, I think I do a respectable job of sensitizing my sociology students to be critical thinkers about social research, especially populations and sampling, response rates and potential compromises on validity and reliability, accurate survey construction and ‘hidden threats’ like social desirability effects. But then I turn these new scholars on to large-scale data sources with nary a thought. With that in mind, and after reading Elaine Ecklund’s back splash (“[Wuthnow] shows that numbers cannot speak for themselves and that Americans have gone too far in letting surveys and polls define our faith experiences for us.”), I was curious what Wuthnow would have to say about some of my go-to sources on sociology religion (e.g., the General Social Survey, the Pew Research Center).
Neither of those venerable sources of survey-based data is spared Wuthnow’s critical eye. For example, he dissects data variability between Gallup and the GSS on church attendance among Americans. From a symposium published in the American Sociological Review in 1998, and using existing data, other surveys, and a new national study he reports:
These criticisms, and others Wuthnow offers, call into question the value of surveys conducted as “must-get-the-findings-out-there-quickly!” polls. Wuthnow quotes Darren Sherkat, who goes further:
Robert Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. His prolific scholarship focuses on social and cultural change, including the sociology of religion.