Areas of Interest / Specialization:
Cultural Sociology; Sociology of Religion; Social Psychology; Self and Identity; Socialization; Narrative and Discourse, Qualitative Methodology (including Ethnography); Theory
Learning to Practice, Becoming Spiritual: Spiritual Disciplines as Projects of the Self
Robert Wuthnow (Chair), Paul DiMaggio, Janet Vertesi
As traditional sources of identity lose their formative power, our lifestyle and sense of self are increasingly considered individual constructions. No longer ascribed at birth, we must choose who we want to be and how we want to live. In recent decades, however, there has been a proliferation of self-constituting organizations, each offering programs and techniques for self-development and personal transformation. How do these organizations and the resources they offer enable and constrain the development of members’ identity and self-understanding?
This dissertation investigates the process of spiritual self-formation within two communities of practice: an Integral Yoga studio and a Catholic spiritual center. Drawing on more than two years of fieldwork, forty-five in-depth interviews and participatory immersion, I examine both the what’s and how’s of spiritual formation. On the one hand, I outline the “toolkit” of symbolic and practical resources made available in these communities for the construction of new spiritual selves. On the other hand, I describe how self-construction unfolds, walking the reader through the lived experience of apprenticeship in these communities, and highlighting the problems and issues that can arise in the development of new selves and forms of subjectivity. Together, these findings contribute to our understanding of how culture works, revealing some of the means through which organizations try (and are more or less able) to shape individual identity and self-understanding.
Chapter 1 introduces the cases, methods and theoretical framework. In Chapter 2, I describe the basic structure and rhetorical conventions underlying official accounts of the “journey” of spiritual formation, and argue that this shared narrative template shapes how practitioners understand themselves in the present as well as who and what they desire to become. Chapter 3 brings together diverse literatures on corporeality and embodiment to examine the constitutive role of bodily techniques and practices in the formation of spiritual selves. Chapter 4 draws attention to the frequency and salience of perceived failures in the process of formation, and analyzes how texts and teachers account for these experiences in ways that promote persistence. Chapter 5 examines how these communities balance practitioners’ desire for individuality and flexibility, with the need to transmit shared rules and standards of excellence in practice. Chapter 6 summarizes the main findings and broader contributions, addresses limitations and suggests avenues for future research.
Articles and Book Chapters
DeGloma, Thomas and Erin F. Johnston. (forthcoming). "Cognitive Migrations: A Cultural and Cognitive Sociology of Personal Transformation," in Wayne Brekhus and Gabe Ignatow (eds), Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Sociology. [equal authorship]
Johnston, Erin F. (forthcoming). “Anticipating the Future: The Growth of Practice-Oriented Spiritualties,” in Eugene V. Gallagher (ed), New and Minority Religions: Projecting the Future. Ashgate.
Johnston, Erin F. 2016. "The Enlightened Self: Identity and Aspiration in Two Communities of Practice" Religions, 7(7): 92. doi: 10.3390/rel7070092
Johnston, Erin F. 2013. "'I was always this way…': Rhetorics of Continuity in Narratives of Conversion," Sociological Forum. 28:3: 549-573.
Lena, Jennifer C. and Erin F. Johnston. 2015. "US Cultural Engagement with Global Muslim Communities: Contours and Connections in an Emerging Field." Grantmakers in the Arts Reader.
Johnston, Erin F. 2013.Celebrating Debutantes and Quinceañeras: Coming of Age in American Ethnic Communities – by Evelyn I. Rodriguez. Social Forces.
Johnston, Erin. 2013. Review of Mapping Religion and Spirituality in a Postsecular World, edited by Giuseppe Giordan and Enzo Pace. Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review.
Manuscripts in Progress
Johnston, Erin F. “Failing to Learn, or Learning to Fail? Discourse and Persistence in the Acquisition of Spiritual Disciplines." Under Review.
Johnston, Erin F. "The Holy Spirit Speaks through our Affects: Emotion Culture at a Catholic Spiritual Center."
Grants and awards:
Co-Principal Investigator (with Thomas Degloma). “Travel as Transformative Experience: Touristic Quests for Radical Self-
Discovery.” University of Norte Dame and UNC: The Experience Project. $50,000, 2015-2017.
Marvin Bressler Graduate Student Teaching Award, Sociology Department, Princeton University, 2015
Ralph A. Gallagher Travel Grant, Association for the Sociology of Religion ($500), 2015
American Sociology Association Student Forum Travel Grant ($225), 2015
Center for the Study of Religion Graduate Fellowship, Princeton University, 2010-2014
Princeton Sociology Department Dissertation Seed Grant ($1000), 2012
Association for the Sociology of Religion Robert J. McNamara Student Paper Award (Honorable Mention), 2012
Society for the Scientific Study of Religion Student Paper Award (Honorable Mention), 2011
Princeton Dean's Fund for Scholarly Travel ($600), 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013
Department of Sociology Travel Grant, Princeton University ($500-1,000), 2011, 2012, 2014
University Fellowship, Graduate School, Princeton University, 2008-2013
Lecturer, Department of Sociology, Princeton University (2015-2016)
Self and Society, Fall 2015
Introduction to Sociology (with Professor Paul Starr), Fall 2015
Travelers, Tourists and Pilgrims, Spring 2016
Visiting Faculty, Social Science Division, Bennington College (Fall 2014)
Personal and Social Interaction
Transformations of the Self
Instructor, Department of Sociology, Kean University (Spring 2012)
Personal and Social Interaction
Preceptor (Teaching Assistant), Department of Sociology, Princeton University (2009-2015)
Introduction to Sociology: Fall 2013, Fall 2011
Sociological Theory: Spring 2011
Attitudes, Identities and Social Interaction: Spring 2013
Sociology of the E-Street: Bruce Springsteen's America: Spring 2015, Fall 2009
Coordinator, Community-Based Learning Initiative (CBLI) Course Project (Fall 2009)
Other Teaching Activities
Invited Participant, Teagle Foundation Seminar on Teaching and Learning, McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, Princeton University, Fall 2010-Spring 2011
Teaching Transcript Program, McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, Princeton University, 2009-2013