Peter G. Stromberg
The men and women who live in contemporary Western societies-- unlike most human beings throughout history--have considerable latitude in choosing their social and ideological affiliations. This remarkable freedom creates some unique social and psychological opportunities and challenges. Throughout my career as a researcher, I have worked to understand some of the processes and implications of affiliation and commitment in the contemporary West.
My doctoral research focused on how persons become committed to a particular institution, a Swedish free (non-state) church. In my dissertation I argued that in spite of wide variations in belief among the church membership, certain concepts and practices united the congregation of the church, and that these shared ideas reflected some of the underlying moral principles of the Swedish welfare state. In my first book (Symbols of Community: The Cultural System of a Swedish Church, 1986, University of Arizona Press) and in a paper entitled “The Impression Point,” published in 1985 the journal Ethos, I began to outline some of the cognitive and emotional aspects of the processes of commitment. It is commonplace in contemporary society for men and women to form strong bonds of identification with particular religious and secular ideas and practices. Often these identifications are rooted in moments wherein cultural symbols take on a concrete and visceral reality by seeming to merge into experience and to acquire the status of lived reality. The emotional power and intellectual centrality of these experiences work to cement people’s commitments to ideas and groups.
After I completed my dissertation I obtained a post-doctoral position that allowed me to further explore these experiences of meaningfulness. This fellowship was located at the departments of Psychiatry and Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego. I attended seminars along with Psychiatry residents and worked as a psychotherapist in a community mental health center for about two years. Through this experience I learned clinical interviewing techniques and, more broadly, I learned about interpreting the emotional dynamics of speech.
I emerged from this training with a much stronger appreciation for the psychological significance of ecstatic experiences of meaningfulness in contemporary society. Previously, I had grasped that on the sociological level, these identifications may foster commitment to the religious or secular groups that generated the relevant ideas and practices. However, it is also important that on the psychological level, such experiences may be understood as standing outside of the mundane world and hence may constitute highly meaningful moments of self-transcendence.
Both psychological and sociological levels of significance are clearly illustrated in the Evangelical Christian conversion experience, and it is to investigating this phenomenon that I turned in my second post-doctoral position, located at the Institute of Human Development at University of California, Berkeley (1983-85). This research was the basis for my second book, Language and Self-Transformation (1993, Cambridge University Press). In many conversion narratives, tenets of faith with which a believer has long been familiar are said to enter directly into the believer’s experience, and thereby assume an enormously magnified significance. From a sociological perspective, this can be a potent mechanism whereby commitment to Christian groups is forged. Psychologically, the conversion is often a means of addressing long-standing sources of ambivalence: The emotional power of the experience can work to endorse one set of norms and practices and to devalue another.
As I have studied the social and psychological aspects of commitment, I have increasingly appreciated the profound historical significance of this phenomenon. Max Weber
Education and Degrees Earned
- B.S. Mathematics, Purdue University, 1974
- B.A. Anthropology, Purdue University, 1974
- Ph.D. Cultural Anthropology, Stanford University, 1981
Previous Teaching Experience
- University of California, Berkeley, Sociology Department, 1983
- University of Arizona, Anthropology Department, 1984-1987
Previous Relevant Work Experience
- Research Associate, Medical Anthropology, University of California San Francisco, 1983-84
- American Anthropological Association
- Society for Psychological Anthropology