Modern Asian Studies

Research Article

Beyond the Paradox: Religion, Family and Modernity in Contemporary Bangladesh


a1 University of Bath Email:


This paper reflects on the apparent ‘paradox’ of a contemporary Bangladesh that appears both ‘more modern’ and ‘more Islamic’, focusing on changes in the family (and the gender and generational orders that it embodies) as a central locus of anxiety and contestation. The paper begins with theory, how the paradox is framed by classical social science expectations of religious decline and how this has been contested by contemporary writers who describe specifically modern forms of piety. It then turns to Bangladesh, where highly publicized symbolic oppositions between ‘religion’ and ‘development’ contrast sharply with people's pragmatic accommodation of development goods in everyday life. Analysis of religious references in interview data reveal the co-existence of very different understandings: a more traditional view of religion as embedded in the moral order; and a more modern deliberate cultivation of a religious life. They also reveal how many of the uses which people make of religion are not specifically religious: to conjure a moral universe, to mark what is important to them, to say things about themselves. The final section returns to theory, reflecting on how this is informed by the findings from Bangladesh, and suggesting that the importance of the private and personal as a site for governance offers a further dimension of why the supposed ‘paradox’ of a religious modernity may not be so paradoxical after all.

(Online publication March 15 2012)