Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Types vs. traits of people

(Part II in a series of types of Christians)

In thinking about types of Christians, it's worthwhile to be clear on what a "type" is and what are some alternative concepts.

As I'm using the term, a type of Christian is an individual identified by certain characteristics. There are usually multiple types, and any one person fits into one type. For example, in the Christianity Today study mentioned yesterday, sample members are either active, professing, liturgical, private, or cultural Christians. Likewise, in Barna's typology, people are either Revolutionary or not.

(Typically, this kinds of classifications have a small number of groups, but that's not necessary. We could classify types of Christians with an almost-continuous measure. For example, we could define types of Christians by how many minutes they pray, on average, a day. You have the zero minuters, the one-minuters, two-minuters, all the way up to many, many minutes. Now this approach isn't used that often because it's cumbersome, but knowing it helps us to think about how people use types.)

An alternative to types would be traits. These are characteristics that all people have, but at different levels. For example, we could say that all self-professed Christians have some belief about the Bible, and they have it at varying levels.

Any given type of Christian may have multiple characteristics. For example, Barna's revolutionaries have seven distinctive passions.

Any given person has multiple traits, but at different levels. So, we might say that each Christian has some level of Bible-reading, praying, tithing, etc....

To make this distinction clear, let's consider an everyday example--the weather.

As I write, on the shores of beautiful Mirror Lake, it's a beautiful spring day out there. The four seasons (the weather, not the music group) are "types" of weather. For me, spring means a certain time of year with it's own pattern of weather. By saying it's a spring day, I convey information about temperature, plant growth, water levels, etc... Some days are spring days, most (sadly) are not.

I could also describe the weather describing its traits. I could say that it's 76 degrees out, low humidity, with the dogwoods in bloom. Each day all year has some level of each of these characteristics.

Do you see the difference?

As a methodological aside, disciplines in the social sciences vary in their use of types vs. traits. Sociologists typically use traits--variables measuring specific characteristics (e.g., income, education levels, perceptions). Psychologists, on the other hand, are more likely to use types--e.g., personality types of introvert versus extrovert. I'm not sure if these disciplinary differences are due to the subject matter being studied or just tradition.

In my next post I'll discuss which I think is best for empirical studies of Christianity.

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