Steven M. Tipton

Steven M. Tipton

Fellow: Awarded 2011
Field of Study: Religion

Competition: US & Canada

Emory University

Steven Tipton teaches sociology of religion, morality, and culture at Emory University and its Candler School of Theology, where he is Charles Howard Candler Professor and former Director of the Graduate Division of Religion. A native of San Francisco, he studied literature, philosophy, and religion at Stanford University (B.A., 1968), then coupled cultural sociology with comparative philosophical and religious ethics for a joint degree in Sociology and the Study of Religion at Harvard University (Ph.D., 1979). This led to Getting Saved from the Sixties: Moral Meaning in Conversion and Cultural Change (1982). It explored conversion as a change of heart, mind, and way of life among countercultural youth from working-class backgrounds born again in spirit-filled Pentecostal churches, middle-class hipsters in the human potential movement buckling down to bureaucratic work, and educated elites seeking enlightenment through the meditative orthopraxy of Zen monastic communities.

From this research emerged a kind of moral anthropology, built around interpretive sociology and descriptive ethics, to show how particular persons situated in social space and historical time make moral sense of their lives and their world, and how they do it within communities of shared discourse and practice. This offered a model for Tipton’s collaborative work with Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan and Ann Swidler on Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985, 1996, 2008; 1986 Pulitzer Prize jury finalist), a social inquiry into middle-class American mores and culture in love, work, and politics; and The Good Society (1991, 1992), a cultural inquiry into the moral drama of American institutions.

These works in turn informed Tipton’s subsequent research, including Public Pulpits: Methodists and Mainline Churches in the Moral Argument of Public Life (2008). It maps the growing moral advocacy and mobilizing efforts of the mainline churches in Washington since 1980, amid mushrooming parachurch religious lobbies and paraparty political-action groups. It charts their shifting modes of discourse and practice through the altered institutional landscape of a more densely crowded, formally organized, fiercely contested, and nationally integrated public square that blurs bright lines of church-state separation.

His Guggenheim project, The Life to Come: Re-Creating Retirement, extends this moral and social inquiry into the manifold moral logics and cultural traditions at play in re-creating the practical meaning of retirement in the everyday experience and social imagination of Americans born in the postwar baby boom, one third of the nation’s workers and voters, as they get set to retire over the next 20 years, and they look ahead to living a quarter of their lives beyond age 65. Ethnographically voiced and culturally meditated, this study explores their emerging ethos of retirement with a feel for its saving promise of true self-renewal and graceful fulfillment in the life to come in this world, however unsure salvation seems in the next. Attuned to the social facts of retirement rising and receding over the past generation, and attentive to moral counsel on retirement from spiritual, therapeutic and financial advisors, this inquiry springs from the personal stories, moral dialogues, and cultural sight lines of baby boomers who are sailing smoothly into retirement, those who are struggling and striving to get there, and those faced with falling short.

Over the years Tipton’s research has been sustained by the generous support of the Lilly Endowment, Louisville Institute, Henry Luce Foundation, Danforth Foundation, Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, American Council of Learned Societies, Association of Theological Schools, and Emory University’s Laney Graduate School and Center for the Study of Law and Religion.


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