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Session A1
Making Taiwan Relevant to Sociology: Turning Contingencies into Puzzles
李鎮邦 Cheng-Pang Lee
Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore, Singapore

The popular and influential small country thesis proposed by Taiwanese sociologist Su-Jen Huang predicts that due to the relatively smaller size, small countries have inherent weaknesses and difficulties in producing high-quality scholarship in the global academic field. From the initial size difference, Huang develops an endogenous model of how a small country’s academic community develops. Following his insights, several scholars have provided strategies and potential solutions to the small country dilemma. Although these solutions and strategies are both practical and insightful, we are not entirely clear how their solutions better integrate Taiwan into the academic studies.

In this article, I propose a potentially fruitful way to make Taiwan relevant to sociology in general and to the global sociology field in specific. That is to situate the historical contingencies observed in Taiwan into the larger universal social processes and explain the contingencies from a comparative angle. I argue that this method can avoid two common critiques faced by scholars who study relatively smaller and less studied cases—the significance of the research and the lack of academic supporters. To illustrate these points, I use my ongoing three projects to highlight how I turn those seemingly historical contingencies into puzzles in order to make them relevant to a larger epistemic community’s interest. These three cases are:

1)    The puzzle of secularization: In the Western cultural and social context, secularization means the decline of religious organizations and religious influence in everyday life. Except for the U.S., the secularization thesis has been proved in most of the European countries. Interestingly, although Taiwanese sociologists have used the term secularization for a long time, they used the term in a very different way. They find that successful religious organizations in Taiwan are often those most secularized ones. This observation differs from both the European and American experience. In fact, none of these Taiwanese sociologists are aware that their observation offers a quite different angle to the general sociological understanding about religion and cultural evolution since Max Weber.

2)    The puzzle of female religious leadership: Religion is known as a gendered institution dominated by men and hence the patrilineal relationships. In the last century, new and powerful religious organizations have emerged in most of the East Asian countries. In Japan, it is Soka Gakkai; in South Korea, it is Yoido Full Gospel Church; in China, it is Falun Gong; in Taiwan, it is Tzu-Chi. Except for Tzu-Chi, all these powerful new religious and civic organizations are established by men. Why? How do we explain this difference?

3)    The puzzle of locationality: Continuing with the last puzzle, I have found that it is extremely interesting to see that most of these super powerful new religious organizations in East Asian countries emerged from the political and economic center of the country except for in Taiwan. The largest new religious organization, Tzu-Chi, emerged from a peripheral city and a marginal area. Is this purely a historical contingency? In fact, I will show that this seemingly historical contingency can be analyzed from the angle of organizational innovation.