Markus Schafer on Religion, Doing Good, Networks, & Triadic Closure
Date: March 19th, 2017

How connected to other people are religious traditionalists and evangelical Christians?  Contrary to the popular image that “holy rollers” are rather insular in their social dealings, Dr. Markus Schafer (Sociology, University of Toronto) shares the results of a number of studies he conducted on how linked in religious and non-religious folks are to their broader communities.  Interestingly, he finds that religious traditionalists are more broadly networked than many social scientists might think, and that these connections also lead them to be more helpful in offering emotional support and personal advice to people who aren’t even religious.  After a bit of discussion about how Markus came to this line of research (along with his interest in old people), Prof. Schafer elaborates on the burgeoning field of network theory and analysis.  He then defines what religious traditionalists and pro-social behaviors are, further detailing how he used the Portrait of American Life Survey (PALS) to leverage this dataset in creative ways to answer some new questions.  One of the more interesting findings of Prof. Schafer is how many individuals are closely linked (four closest friends) to an individual considered a religious traditionalist; roughly 60% (give or take a few percentage points) have a someone we consider to be religiously traditional within our tight network, despite such individuals being a rather small proportion of the US population as a whole.  Moreover, Prof. Schafer discovers that traditionalist exhibit higher odds of offering people emotional support and personal advice, including to individuals who are not traditionalists themselves.  This indicates that those religious folks are not as insular as they are often stereotyped.  We discuss some of the reasons why this may be, and some possible methodological biases within the data.  Dr. Schafer’s next study looks at how individuals connect their various friends, something sociologists call “triadic closure.”  What this means is if Bob has a friendship with Ann and Carol, but Ann and Carol don’t know one another, triadic closure would mean that Ann and Carol do become friends thanks to Bob.  (Thanks, Bob!)  This is the stuff of “dense networks” and help to build close-knit communities.  And again, the evidence points towards religious individuals — most specifically evangelical Christians — being very good at creating and closing these triangles, indicating that they are not as insular and “church-centric” as one might expect.  It is also noted that rural folks also score high on triadic closure.  Both Tony and Markus toss around some explanations for why evangelicals might be particularly good triadic closure, and we talk about the missionizing nature of evangelicals and how things like “small groups” often try to connect different people on secular interests such as horseback riding and other things.  We conclude briefly with one final study Markus conducted.  In this study, again making use of the PALS data, we find out that intercessory prayers have a positive impact on the optimism of the recipient of the prayers.  This fits in with the network nature of much of Prof. Schafer’s work in that it gives yet another perspective on how people connect with one another in ways that have beneficial outcomes.  Recorded: March 7, 2017.



Prof. Markus Schafer’s bio at the Dept. of SociologyUniversity of Toronto. (View his c.v. for his many writings.)

The Portraits of American Life Study at The Association of Religion Data Archives.


Rod Stark on How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists.

Bradley Wright on Christian Stereotypes.

Bradley Wright on Religion, Race, and Discrimination.

Eleanor Power on Religion, Community, and Signaling.

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