Theory and Society

, Volume 41, Issue 2, pp 187-210

First online:

The trap of intellectual success: Robert N. Bellah, the American civil religion debate, and the sociology of knowledge

  • Matteo BortoliniAffiliated withDipartimento FISPPA, via Cesarotti 10, University of Padova Email author 

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Current sociology of knowledge tends to take for granted Robert K. Merton’s theory of cumulative advantage: successful ideas bring recognition to their authors, successful authors have their ideas recognized more easily than unknown ones. This article argues that this theory should be revised via the introduction of the differential between the status of an idea and that of its creator: when an idea is more important than its creator, the latter becomes identified with the former, and this will hinder recognition of the intellectual’s new ideas as they differ from old ones in their content or style. Robert N. Bellah’s performance during the “civil religion debate” of the 1970s is reconstructed as an example of how this mechanism may work. Implications for further research are considered in the concluding section.


Intellectuals Success Cumulative advantage Robert N. Bellah American civil religion