A day in the life
Chris Helland, sociologist
It’s hard to describe how much I love this job. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to pursue these things.
Where social science bumps up against religion
Chris Helland, associate professor of sociology, loves to teach the course Goblins, Ghosts, Gods and Gurus. Part of it is the novelty of studying vampires, voodoo and other myths, but that doesn’t excite him half as much as how the idea of these myths work in society.
Nowhere else is the distance between religious studies and sociology more apparent than in the classroom. He sees cultural beliefs butt up against social science all the time.
“We’re not there to prove whether there are supernatural beings or whether there is a god or whether the beliefs people have are true or false,” he says. “It’s our job to be good social scientists and try and understand how much impact those beliefs have on what people do.”
That’s not to say Dr. Helland has no inner spiritual conversations. In fact, you might say a calling drew him to sociology. As someone who didn’t finish high school, one day he found himself at a crossroads: keep drifting through careers or address certain questions he had about spirituality more deeply. He focused on his questions and started down the long path to becoming a professor.
These days, Dr. Helland visits sacred sites in Israel, India, Tibet and around the world. He connects with priests and pundits of all faiths, looking at how the internet connects people and places to religious experiences.
What he learns on his travels usually makes it into the classroom.
“One of the key goals,” he says, of sociology, “is trying to make people think about their society and getting them engaged in trying to figure out the questions of why things are as they are, and how do they change.”
Examining lives and beliefs might require working longer hours than before he entered academic life, but Dr. Helland loves every minute of it.
“Actually, it’s hard to describe how much I love this job,” he says. “It’s a beautiful thing to be able to pursue these things.”