CSOC Logo_שקוף.png​​​​​עגול שקוף כיתוב שחור.pngRethinking Center and Periphery

in the Abrahamic Religions

CSoC Research Theme for 2021-2022

In the introduction to his Center and Periphery. Essays in Macrosociology (Chicago 1975), the renowned American sociologist Edward Shils wrote:


"My awareness that societies possess centers which impose themselves by means other than coercion and manipulation, and which are more that places where decisions are made and coordinating functions are performed, opened up to me new possibilities of dealing with problems I had been unable to resolve… My own reflections on the tendencies of societies to develop centers and the corresponding tendency of humans to seek and to reject centers disclosed to me certain affinities between the charismatic or the sacred and the center... the disposition to attribute charismatic qualities to persons, roles, or institutions is an element in the process by which centers are formed, maintained, and changed… [xxxii-xxxiii]. 


The theological and historical study of Abrahamic religions has granted a place of pride to the stable center, often expressing it in cosmic terms – as center of the world, gateway to heaven. These may be geographical locations (Jerusalem, Mecca, Rome…), centers of power and authority, seats of ecclesiastical hierarchies and cultic practice or, alternatively, classes and clergy seen as the bearers of the Heavenly Word. Scholars often describe how power, charisma, knowledge and values radiate from socio-political centers to broader peripheries – through diffusion of learning, text and ecclesiastical hierarchies, circulation of canonical texts or relics, missionary activity or practices of pilgrimage that either draw the far-flung satellites into the orbit of the central religious shrine (ála Eliade) or magnetize believers to the 'center out there', in the wilderness (ála Turner).

There is, however, much to be gained through a perspective that emphasizes peripheries; that shows how alternative religious visions and movements from the margins conceive of the center, and react to the emanations of power and authority from there – adapting, subverting or revolting against its claims. We hope to explore under what conditions are such peripheral or marginal reactions cast out as heretical. When do they succeed in penetrating the center? When do they pose a challenge so formidable that they eventually undermine the old order, becoming the new center of a religion or religious movement? Under what conditions do peripheries become loci of conservative resistance to innovations and reforms initiated at the center? How are such forces transmitted or blocked by emissaries, mediators, gatekeepers and their networks? Do such mediators become agents of the center or marginalized liminal entities?

Rethinking centers and peripheries can, we believe, offer a more dynamic view of phenomena in the Abrahamic religions, highlighting the fluidity and mobility of people, ideas, objects, texts and practices, and the changes they undergo as they move back and forth.