Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 2, 2021

Professor Calder studies capitalism and Islam

By BAYLEIGH MURRAY | September 26, 2019


Broadly, Ryan Calder, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, researches the relationship between religion and capitalism. 

“For much of the history of human civilization, for the many people who considered themselves religious — their religious beliefs have affected the way they act in markets,” he said. “Some sociologists, very famous ones, believed in the 19th and 20th centuries that as economies modernize, religion should play less and less of a role in economic activity.” 

Calder cited the example of charging interests on loans, which was once, and in some cases still is, considered a sinful practice in many religions. 

In the 1960s and 70s, some Muslim pioneers developed a method of banking that avoided dealing in interest. 

In the 1970s, these were very small ‘Islamic Banks’. They didn’t begin growing very quickly until the 1990s. Today, it is a three trillion dollar industry which includes Islamic bonds, equity markets and asset management. 

According to Calder, approximately one percent of the entire global financial system today is Islamic, making Islamic finance bigger than the financial systems of Latin America and Eastern Europe. The origins and unique characteristics of the large-scale system is the object of his current work. 

“My research questions are: How did this massive industry come into existence? Why does it exist in Islam but not really other religious traditions? Why do some Muslims believe they should bank with a particular kind of bank?” Calder said.  

Calder is writing a book that attempts to answer these very questions. 

His primary research methodology includes interviews. He has interviewed hundreds of people in over a dozen countries. While he is focusing on countries like Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Pakistan, which have played important roles in the history of Islamic finance, he has also talked to people in the UK, the United States and Singapore. 

He explained that he interviews people in a wide range of positions: bank CEOs, bank tellers, and specialists of Islamic law. He reads through literature and legal decisions to gather evidence that will eventually help him answer his initial research questions. 

Calder did not begin his academic journey in sociology. He was a physics major his first two years of college until a class on the history of the Mongol conquest sparked his curiosity in a disparate field. 

“I got very excited about the idea of Genghis Khan riding his horses across all of Eurasia and burning everything in his path,” Calder joked. “I found this very interesting, so I ended up studying the history of Central Asia and that became my undergraduate major.” 

After college, Calder worked as a management consultant for some time. Around 2004, he was posted in some banks in Dubai and Saudi Arabia when Islamic banking was just beginning to grow. Calder ended up writing his MA and PhD theses about Islamic finance in the sociology program at the University of California, Berkeley. 

Those experiences certainly helped him when he began his work in sociology. 

According to Calder, the sociological imagination, which underlies sociological studies, was best described by the sociologist C. Wright Mills. Mills asserted that sociologists are unique from other social scientists because they connect private troubles to public issues. 

“Let’s say you just got laid off, that’s a private trouble. You could see that as merely a private struggle… but [Mills] encourages us to connect this to larger forces in society,” he said. 

For students interested in drawing that connection between private and public issues, professors in the department, like Stephen Morgan and Stefanie DeLuca have large research operations involving multiple student researchers. Others hire research assistants on an ad hoc basis. 

According to Calder, the opportunities are abound in the sociology department.

“I am an unabashed cheerleader for the sociology department. I have, I think, the coolest colleagues in the universe,” he said.

The research interests of Calder’s ‘cool colleagues’ include poverty, family, race, gender, migration, labor, land and finance. 

These topics are examined through quantitative or qualitative lenses; many professors are studying different countries. 

To engage in varied research in sociology as well as other disciplines, Calder’s biggest piece of advice to current undergraduates is to study a foreign language. 

“It’s so hard to find a point in your life where you will be in a place with high quality language instruction, around other motivated students, where you have the time to really focus on it.” Calder explained. “When I started studying Arabic, I realized it was a lot like quantum mechanics — it’s highly structured and that was why I really fell in love with it.” 

To supplement the language skilled learned in the classroom, Calder also recommends taking opportunities to travel. 

“There are so many incredible directions it could take you,” Calder said.  

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