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Popular Culture Studies and Bruce Springsteen: Escaping and Embracing Religion

Kate McCarthy in 2013, shortly after the re-release of her co-edited volume God in the Details. However, listening back to this unreleased (until now!) interview, her commentary both on the metamorphic nature of popular culture studies and on the music of Bruce Springsteen remain salient and fresh even today. With “the Boss” having just finished his tour in support of the re-released The River and a new solo album planned, it seemed fitting to unearth this interview between McCarthy and A. David Lewis, tracking Springsteen’s relationships to the Church and to women.

This interview was recorded by A. David Lewis – who has been an interviewee on the RSP twice in the past – for a separate project. As fate would have it, the interview has made its way into our hands and we are delighted to bring it to you now.

Video Games and Religious StudiesReligion and Film, Religion and Literature,Visual Culture and the Study of Religion, Religion and Comic Books, and Religion and Cultural Production. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, ornaments, puncture repair kits, and more.

 

Religious Authority and Social Media

Throughout the history of the RSP, we have been privileged to feature a number of interviews and responses which have focused upon the interaction of ‘religion’ with information and communications technology, including Jonathan’s interview with Tim Hutchings on Digital Religion, and Louise’s interview with Heidi Campbell on Religion in a Networked Society. However, up until now, we haven’t paid particular attention to the impact of social media upon ‘religion’ and Religious Studies. Today’s interview features Chris speaking with Pauline Hope Cheong of Arizona State University on the topic of religious authority, the impact of social media upon this aspect of religion, and how scholars can potentially go about utilizing this seemingly infinite repository of information and chatter in their research.

As Cheong herself writes:

Given its rich and variable nature, authority itself is challenging to define and study. Although the words “clergy” and “priests” are commonly used, in the west, to connote religious authority, the variety of related titles is immense (e.g. “pastor,” “vicar,” “monk,” “iman,” “guru,” “rabbi,” etc). Studies focused on religious authority online have been few, compared to studies centered on religious community and identity. Despite interest and acknowledgment of the concept, there is a lack of definitional clarity over authority online, and no comprehensive theory of religious authority… (2013, 73)

Hopefully this interview shall go some way to addressing this lack.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc.

This interview was recorded in London, in June 2013, at the Open University’s Digital Media and Sacred Text Conference. We are very grateful to Tim Hutchings and the Open University for their support in facilitating this recording, and for just generally being awesome.

References and Further Reading

  • Cheong, P.H. (2013) Authority. In H. Campbell (Ed). Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds. Pp 72-87. NY: Routledge
  • Cheong, P.H., P. Fischer-Nielsen, P., S. Gelfgren, & C. Ess (Eds) (2012) Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices, Futures. pp. 1-24. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Cheong, P.H., Hwang, J.M. & Brummans, H.J.M. (forthcoming, 2013). Transnational immanence: The autopoietic co-constitution of a Chinese spiritual organization through mediated organization. Information, Communication & Society.
  • Cheong, P.H., Huang, S.H., & Poon, J.P.H. (2011). Religious Communication and Epistemic Authority of Leaders in Wired Faith Organizations. Journal of Communication, 61 (5), 938-958.
  • Cheong, P.H., Huang, S.H., & Poon, J.P.H (2011). Cultivating online and offline pathways to enlightenment: Religious authority in wired Buddhist organizations. Information, Communication & Society, 14 (8), 1160-1180.

Networked religion, blurring boundaries and shifts in the field of authority

Central to questions of authority is the ability to define the tradition; to define how scripture should be interpreted, and to tell orthodoxy from heresy.

A freehand commentary, published by the Religious Studies Project on 12 June 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Heidi Campbell on Religion in a Networked Society (10 June 2013)

The past 15 years or so have witnessed a period of swift development of the World Wide Web and a wide range of other information and communication technologies (ICTs).  It has also become a truism that individuals, communities and cultures are more interconnected than ever before. This can be seen in all areas of life from economics and entertainment to education, and politics. Religion is no exception, and scholars of religious phenomena have increasingly turned their gaze to the ways in which these new technological possibilities affect religious communities.  As the field of interest has developed, researcher’s foci and insights have followed suit.

The Religious Studies Project’s interview with Heidi Campbell focuses mainly on her recently published article which examines the emergence of both online religion and the way scholars have approached this phenomenon. A key aspect examined in the article is the blurring boundaries between religion online and offline. Campbell uses the term ‘networked religion’ to better grasp the phenomenon.

The questions addressed in the interview are hugely interesting, and the topic is also a tricky one. The impact modern ICTs have on religious communities and religious activity must be mapped in an increasingly fluid and rapidly changing environment, in which distinctions between online and offline, public and private, as well as member and non-member is difficult, and often impossible, to maintain.

Blurred boundaries

Even though it is still technically possible to talk about time spent online and offline, this distinction is, according to Campbell, becoming more and more blurred. In everyday experience, this development seems fairly self-evident, as it is facilitated by the evolving communication technologies themselves. 15 years ago most people only had access to Internet from one or two, clearly defined geographical locations. For me, these were the family computer in our living room, and the single enormous PC with Internet access at the local library (under the watchful eye of the librarian). Growing connection speeds, the development of smart phones and tablets, and increasingly widespread access to wireless networks has made the Internet available almost everywhere. Consequently, ‘being online’ may – and in many cases, has – become a constant feature of everyday life.

Heidi Campbell uses the term networked religion to describe the more or less fused online/offline religion emerging in the digital age. With this term, Campbell wishes to point out how religion has been affected by the new ‘socio-technological infrastructure’ and its logic, much like all other areas of society. The term ‘network’ is probably most well-known from Manuel Castells’ extensive work on the emergence of the network society and the various social implications of the development of ICTs. Network has become a common metaphor in social sciences, but also outside academia.

Campbell mentions five core aspects that constitute a networked religion. These are convergent practice, multisite reality, network community, storied identity and shifts in authority. Although the names are different and the topic discussed here more specialized, these themes strike a familiar chord to many general sociological accounts of developments in contemporary religiosity. Dr Teemu Taira, for example, has written on ‘liquid religiosity’ (2006), which he describes as being individualistic and this-worldly in orientation. In Taira’s view this type of religiosity typically emphasizes the authority of the individual. Spiritual seekership and mix-and-match religiosity is accepted and common. Community formations are often loose networks or ‘coatrack communities’ where individuals come and go as they please. All sorts of religious and spiritual self-help materials, fairs, teachers and groups form a fluid milieu, in which people create their individual spiritual roadmaps – or ‘storied identities’, to borrow Campbell’s terminology.

Even though Taira’s work operates on a rather general level and does not focus on the Internet or ICTs, they are clearly present in his views. Where else can you find as liquid religion as on the Internet, where moving from one society and information source to another is only a matter of clicking a mouse?

An interesting question is, how do we research this type of religiosity and religious communities that are ‘liquid’ or in the state of ‘flux’? I for one am only beginning to examine these tricky methodological issues. On a more quantitative level, all sorts of new computer programs for data mining and network analysis are being developed rapidly. Ethnographically, though, how is it possible to fruitfully approach this kind of networked religion which stretches over the divide between online communities and offline environments, in which memberships are not clearly defined, and even the teachings are more or less open source, available for use and modification?  I am eagerly looking forward to innovative approaches.

Religion and technology

New technologies affect religious practices both directly and indirectly. Religions old and new take up these new tools and move in to these new forums, actively adopting innovative ways of organization, communication and attracting members. Needless to say, these new possibilities are not merely a passive medium in the hands of religion. They may well give rise to new questions and challenges, ranging from practical issues, to ethical and theological dilemmas. They may also affect the expectations people have of their community and of life in general. Some forms of religion handle these changes well, others less so.

New technologies allow for new possibilities for organizing communities, and for communication within communities as well as with the surrounding society. They also create new possibilities for thought and imagination, and so may affect values, expectations, and even inspire the creation of new religions.

An example of such connection between technology and religious thought is presented by Jeremy Stolow in his article Salvation by Electricity (2008). His article examines the relationship between the Spiritualist movement of the early 19th century and the newly invented telegraph. Stolow examines the ways in which Spiritualism developed hand in hand with the new technologies, and how both its ideas and the formation of the movement were in many ways facilitated by the technology. To put things briefly, on a material level, the telegraph made it possible to create loose grassroots networks and share ideas globally. Spirit mediums also found publicity and possibilities of voicing their opinions, thereby challenging powers that be and negotiating anew the existing locations of authority.

On a less tangible level, the new technologies brought with themselves very powerful new imageries. In Spiritualism, one of the most powerful images was electricity. Similarly, the Internet and other ICTs may also have an effect on new religious imaginations. There are religious groups that can be reasonably called digitally based. They may have existed before the Internet started spreading, but the Internet has given them the kind of environment where they can create a relatively free community. One interesting example is the Open Source Religion Project, an online community in which people discuss and debate religious ideas. As the name suggests, Open Source Religion shares the logic of collectively creating something that everyone can develop and improve.

Shifts in authority

The questions of networked religion are also central to my own research project. I am currently studying the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a quasi-religious community that is usually categorized as a spoof religion or a satire with political aims. The aim of my study is to examine precisely the blurring of boundaries – not only the border between online and offline, but also the blurring between the realms of public and private, and of religion, humour and politics.

Campbell notes that, on the one hand, religious communities and individuals online may challenge the authority of traditional authorities. On the other, these traditional authorities themselves have in some cases begun to use these new spaces to reassert their authority. Even the pope has a twitter account.

Central to questions of authority is the ability to define the tradition; to define how scripture should be interpreted, and to tell orthodoxy from heresy.  In the case of many new religious movements, such as some neo-pagan groups, it is not so much about definitions within the tradition but the category of religion in general. This is especially visible in cases where a religious community attempts become a state-recognized religious institution. Having been denied this status, these movements often claim that the definitions used in this legal framework are biased in favour of more established scriptural religions, often Christianity. This in turn creates interesting dilemmas for the state, as it has to define what a religion is and what it is not. Religion was, after all, supposed to be private and consequently not a political issue.

All in all, the interview with Professor Campbell gives a good, concise account on where the development of religion online seems to be headed. This is no small achievement, given the huge complexity of the field of online religion, and I am looking forward to getting my hands on her article. A small problem in general summaries like this is that they often tend to lose edge and become difficult to grasp and apply on a more concrete level.  Nevertheless, I think networked religion seems like a promising tool in examining the messy reality.  In this commentary I have tried to open up some possible fields where Campbell’s formulations could be taken and applied to. The next step is the quest for fruitful research methods…

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Digital CameraHanna Lehtinen is a graduate student and currently an intern in Comparative religion in Turku University, Finland. She is working on her MA thesis on the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Her research interests include parody religions, religious innovation, evolving discourse on religion, and power relations in general. She has also written the essays Divine Inspiration Revisited and What should we do with the study of new religions? for the Religious Studies Project.

 

References

  • Stolow, Jeremy. 2008. Salvation by Electricity pp. 668–686 in Hent de Vries (ed.) 2008: Religion. Beyond a Concept. New York: Fordham.
  • Taira, Teemu. 2006. Notkea uskonto. Published in Eetos-series. Turku: Eetos.

Reflections on Teaching Religious Studies Online

mec2As we find new and innovative ways to teach students, we as instructors are charged (sometimes without formal or proper orientation) to adopt new methods of instruction.

Reflections on Teaching Religious Studies Online

By Christopher F. Silver, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 8 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Doe Daughtrey on Teaching Religious Studies Online (6 May 2013)

This podcast explores the nature of learning within online learning and the benefits and disadvantages of this type of curricular design. The interview was conducted with Doe N Daughtrey an instructor at Arizona State University and at Mesa Community College. While her work falls within a wide range of topics from Mormonism to new forms of spirituality, she speaks to the student and instructor experience of teaching online courses, particularly within the field of Religious Studies. Certainly the online medium in Higher Education has grown exponentially over the past 10 years.  As an instructional tool, it creates some new challenges for the instructor never before encountered within academia. An obvious example noted by Daughtrey is in relation to student interactions within discussion boards. In more traditional classrooms, students are cognizant of their behavior and their exchanges with other students. However, within the virtual world, students appear more bold and vocal in their opinions. Some students struggle not only with writing but proper projection within writing. When writing and responding to fellow students in an online forum, students may not be mindful of others perception. It is difficult for the instructor to instill in students a cultural sensitivity of others who are different from the student.  Congruently, the instructor also has to deal with the permanency of such exchanges as textual exchanges. In a traditional classroom, such exchanges, if they do occur, come and go and the instructor can immediately address and correct inappropriate behavior. Another issue addressed by Daughtrey is the issue of time as related to the course. In traditional classroom exchanges, students and the instructor are in a space together for a specific time frame (McKeachie, 1999). In the online world, the exchanges can be potentially 24 hours depending on the availability of each student and instructor. As far as inappropriate exchanges are concerned, students can have heated or controversial disagreements during times when the instructor is not online to monitor the exchange. Much can happen during that period of time with the potential to spiral into a much larger situation before the instructor is able to intervene.

In addressing such issues and concerns, Daughtrey implies that the textual space of the online course creates a communicative void typically filled with body language and voice inflection in traditional classrooms. As a potential solution to such situations, Daughtrey has used voice recordings in lieu of textual responses for her students. This at least provides the students with her voice inflection in which to infer intention from her feedback. She notes that this has been helpful in her online courses. Another solution Daughtrey proposes is for students to keep a private online journal of their thoughts. This helps keep sensitive discussions and thoughts out of the online forums insuring smoother online courses.  Finally one of the other telling themes of Daughtrey’s podcast is the limitation of online resources for Religious Studies courses. Daughtrey argues that there are many online resources which can assist in the construction of online courses, but that there is no content specific support for Religious Studies. Such support would help in the delivery of student education. She suggests that more should be done to address content and curricular issues in detail.

In reviewing this podcast, there are a couple of issues which arise. I think it is important to provide the reader with my own background here, as much of the conversation speaks to experience and not simply to instructional design and implementation. My own education has been a nexus of three fields of study: Psychology, Religious Studies, and Education. Much like Dr. Daughtrey, I have taught online courses in a variety of fields including Religious Studies online. Many of the concerns that she notes within the podcast are a common theme in teaching Religious Studies at a secular institution. Certainly when coupled with a largely conservative religious landscape among the student body, issues of ontology will certainly arise. Online learning provides a much more personal space in which to communicate opinions and ideas. In this regard, some students may assume that radical opinions and a lack of social mindfulness have no implications. For instructors such assumptions create issues. Certainly the formality and etiquette of the classroom may not translate into the online medium of instruction. I would propose an alternative method for addressing such issues. Many of the concerns related to behavior and content are related to the asynchronous method of online instruction. This method is called asynchronous because the content is unidirectional. For example discussion boards, YouTube videos, even this Podcast is an example of a unidirectional delivery of information. Its antithesis is called synchronous learning. It is a real time exchange of information. Examples of this might be a video conference on Adobe Connect, GoToMeeting, a live chat room in real time, or even a phone conversation.  I would suggest that online instruction should be a hybrid of synchronous and asynchronous delivery models for optimal learning. Certainly if a university does not have the resources for synchronous online instruction, there are some free open source alternative programs to assist an inspiring instructor.  This at least allows the interaction between student and teacher and presents information in a traditional format of instruction. Instructors can then project their personality into their instruction beyond a textual exchange. Moreover, students can interact in real time learning the social expectations of the instructor.  This is important when considering the challenges of teaching a controversial topic such as religion (Carlson and Blumenstyk, 2012).

While religion is a social norm for many in the United States and beyond, certainly social norms and classroom culture are a complex issue for many instructors. Not all students ascribe to a post-modern paradigm of different yet equal among the growing multicultural and multiethnic American and Western European populations. Some regard their coexistence with those who view religion or even race differently as a necessary evil of public education. Much of the confusion noted by Daughtrey in regards to online education is that the online world may be implicitly perceived as our private space of interaction, where the rules and values we ascribe to within daily interactions do not apply in the online discussion board. We as instructors are no longer simply Teachers or Professors but a combination of Information Technology Professionals and Cultural Advocates all wrapped into one role. While I cannot speak to the religious landscape of Arizona, I can speak to the Southeastern United States. I, too, teach in secular college and university. Much of the curricular agenda is dependent on accreditation and course objectives.  Still, instructors must create the perception of value for Religious Studies education and encourage students to learn more about the world in which they live. In my own courses, such discussions are heated simply because religion is equated with Christianity. The idea that other religions would be academically equal to Christianity can be offensive to some students. For many of my students, religion is a form of personal identity. It is who we are, not simply a belief or what we do. Many cannot compartmentalize it or objectify their belief. Therefore to have such discussions, academic or otherwise, requires a new paradigm of behavior and inquiry in religion’s examination by students. This type of student internalization of religious identity and perceived threat is not limited to the field of Religious Studies.  For example, a colleague of mine and psychologist of religion Michael Nielsen at Georgia Southern had a similar experience.  As Nielsen (2012) has noted, many students come to courses on religious topics either assuming the content will confirm their ontological position or to argue for their belief as the dominant truth. Nielsen’s perspective is but one of many examples where students do not understand the overall curricular purpose and goal of academic explorations of religion. They want to internalize it in some way.

This Podcast primarily focuses on instructional issues related to teaching Religious Studies online. These issues are certainly juxtaposed within the secular state-run institution of higher learning. It is likely that there are differences in the liberal arts and religiously affiliated styles of Higher Education. I would suggest that they likely differ in their curricular goals depending on the overall mission of the college or university. It is unclear how these differences translate in online learning and education. Certainly, it would have been interesting if Dr. Daughtrey would have addressed such differences within her podcast. Additionally, I am left with the question of curricular structure. What are some of the different ways Religious Studies are taught and the resources which may be available to a new instructor charged with online learning? It would be nice to see a conversation which goes beyond the politics of religious identity and online learning (although this is certainly an interesting topic overall).  With differences in Religious Studies educational theory, there may yet be another layer to the instructional onion we call religious education. With these criticisms in mind, this is not to say that the experiential perspective is not useful in education. In fact, this is the meat of an instructional design model. As we find new and innovative ways to teach students, we as instructors are charged (sometimes without formal or proper orientation) to adopt new methods of instruction. While one may argue that a good instructor should always be learning, there is likely a point of diminishing returns in which the instructor is expending energy in acquiring new instructional skillsets such as the various Online Learning Systems (OLS) while also tracking and evaluating student performance within their course. Professors may not have the time to devote to learning all the features of OLS and therefore the overall instructional product may suffer from skillset limitations. Additionally, institutions may be tempted to increase enrollment in online classes to save money, further diverting the instructor from exploring their research areas as well as gaining additional OLS skills. So certainly the economics of online learning play a role here too.

There is no doubt that OLS models of learning have benefits and disadvantages in academia. As a former Information Technology Professional and, typically, an early adopter of new technologies, I view online learning with circumspect. If it is to be incorporated, it should be a hybrid delivery model with classroom and online time for the students. If that is not possible, then the instructional design should include synchronous and asynchronous delivery of material. Evaluation of student performance is not simply about assignment quality and test accuracy, but it is about the real-time monitoring of learning, the observation of the student as they make their academic journey. Online learning loses the thrill of watching students achieve their “Aha” moments. There needs to be a technological solution found to incorporate the human aspects of the classroom in online learning.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

mec2Christopher F. Silver is an Ed. D. Candidate in Education and Leadership at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga USA. He has a masters degree in research psychology from the UT Chattanooga and a masters degree in Religion and Culture from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Ontario Canada. He is currently conducting research on American Atheism exploring the complexities of self-identity adjectives in how atheist and agnostic participants self-describe. In addition, Mr. Silver also serves as an instructor at UT Chattanooga teaching courses in psychology and currently serves as an information technology research consultant.

Mr. Silver has collaborated in the fields of religious studies, psychology and sociology of religion. His current collaboration is as a research manager for the US team of the Bielefeld (Germany) International Study of Spirituality. His email address is Christopher-Silver@utc.edu. He is also an Assistant Editor at the Religious Studies Project, and has conducted a number of interviews, and previously written the piece A Word by Any Other Name: The Emergent Field of Non-religion and the Implications for Social Meaning for the website.

References

  • McKeachie, W. J. (1999). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Nielsen, M. (2012). Teaching Psychology of Religion at a state university. Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality Newsletter, 36(2), 2-5.
  • Carlson, S. & Blumenstyk, G. (2012). For Whom is college being reinvented? The Chronicle of Higher Education. 59(17).

Ethics on the Internet: Public versus Private, is it that simple?

Ethics on the Internet: Public versus Private, is it that simple?

By Lauren Bernauer, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 3 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Tim Hutchings on Digital Religion (1 October 2012).

In this week’s podcast about religion and digital media, Tim Hutchings and Jonathan Tuckett discuss various areas of current research into religion and digital media, such as use of online forums, creation of prayer groups and pages, and also the use of virtual worlds like Second Life in people’s religiosity, and the ability to construct churches and temples in such settings.  My own research deals with digital media and religion, although is more about the religious content of that media than how religious people might engage with it. Yet, I must still examine forums and blogs for general fan reactions to such content, and it is the potential ethics around this type of research practice that will be the focus of this discussion.

When it comes to discovering a community’s response to an issue of interest, the Internet serves as a great resource, for often people will share their opinions on public forums and blogs for the rest of the world to read.  For a researcher this is an easy way to gather material for an argument without having to engage with an ethics committee, or even with the people writing the forum or blog posts.  As these people have made their posts public, they will be found via search engines or the simple browsing of a forum or website. Thus it is generally considered that this content is public domain (McKee & Porter 2009, p.9). However there is some evidence that attitudes towards this are changing.

Before discussing the changes that are occurring in some universities around ethics, the issue of what constitutes ‘public’ and ‘private’ on the Internet should also be considered.  Some might view this simply as a case of: if it can be read without having to sign up and potentially have someone approve your membership, then it is public content.  However, as some scholars have rightly pointed out, just because the place is viewable to all, it does not mean that the members consider their discussions to be public (Elm 2008).  An example of this is Norman K. Denzin’s research of people’s use of a Usenet group to discuss their emotional stories related to destructive relationships (Denzin 1998).  As the archives of this group are open access, Denzin was freely able to find and use the information that members of the community posted, without having to seek consent for its use.  Despite the group’s posting archive being publicly accessible, the people who posted their private stories may not have intended for them to be read by an outsider, someone who had not been involved in similar abusive emotional situations.

Denzin’s research did occur some fourteen years ago when the Internet was still relatively new and not as widespread as it is now. Yet, about the same length of time ago, in 1995, Lynne Schrum wrote on ethics for Internet research, and how the ethics used in standard research might be adapted for those doing research online.  Under the concept of Privacy she writes:

Closely related to unintended or unanticipated harm, the issue of privacy evokes strong emotions among researchers.  Guba and Lincoln (1989) maintain that privacy and confidentiality have also been defined too narrowly, so that the personal space of individuals, including many areas of intense and private significance, are too often considered by researchers to be open to investigation. (Schrum 1995, p.315)

In their recent work, The Ethics of Internet Research (2009), Heidi A. McKee and James E. Porter have built upon the previous research of Mali Sveningsson (2004) to map where statements and information a person reveals online might sit on an X-Y grid.  The X axis represents Private to Public, while the Y axis scales Non-Sensitive to Sensitive.  McKee and Porter add to this by determining that if information can be placed in the Public-Non-Sensitive quadrant or just outside of it, the information should be regarded as not requiring informed consent.  Examples given include; a resume listed online is Private but Non-Sensitive and thus would not need informed consent, while a public blog discussing a personal account of abuse, despite being Public is highly Sensitive and informed consent should be obtained before using the information in research (McKee & Porter 2009, pp.20–21).

My research deals with statements and information in the Public-Non-Sensitive quadrant, and as this is the case, should consent be gained from those whose public forum posts I have quoted?  I do not actively engage with these communities, or even actively ‘lurk’, which is considered an advantageous research method by some (Brownlow & O’Dell 2002, p.685), yet the guidelines created by Barbara F. Sharf after her research and communication with an online Breast Cancer support group would suggest that I should (Sharf 1999, pp.254–255).  However it would seem that Sharf’s research would fall into the Sensitive half of Sveningsson’s grid, and as she was actively engaging with the participants of the community, informed consent does seem to be important.

The issues surrounding ethics when researching online and utilising information provided seemingly freely by members of different communities are not clear.  For those interviewing and engaging with people via a digital medium for their research it would seem only sensible that they follow standard ethical guidelines and obtain ethics clearance, just as they would for face-to-face interviews.  Yet, what is not clear is casual observation of forum posting, reading the comments on a YouTube video or blog post.  If it is viewable by all, is it public domain?  Denzin considered it so, yet the Private-Public/Non-Sensitive-Sensitive grid, and our own implicit understanding of prevalent posting habits, would deem that some information of that nature requires informed consent.

At my own institution there are some changes occurring in regards to ethics clearance, primarily for postgraduate students, as it would appear a large number of them are not aware that their research may need an ethics clearance.  In Australia if research is done without approval from an ethics committee, this does not prevent the student receiving a successful Master of Philosophy or PhD examination. However it does deem their dissertations unpublishable, and thus stalls their hopes of an academic career.  One solution to this is to have new postgraduate students complete an ethics clearance form or provide a written acknowledgement of having read through the form to ensure that if they will be conducting interviews or similar for their research they are aware of what is required of them in terms of the law.

There is also discussion of changes being made to ethics clearances regarding online research. Currently this is not required for type of work I do, but in three to five years that could change, with lurking on forums to be considered worthy of seeking ethics committee approval.  This ultimately has to do with potential changes in Australian law, with which ethics committees in research institutions would have to comply.

While ethics regarding research on the internet has been discussed and methods have been proposed for years, it is still something that is unclear and worked out on a ‘case by case’ basis by ethics boards and committees. Although such research is quite common and the Internet is widely used, online research is relatively new. It is safe to conclude that how to tackle the issue of ethical research online will still take some time, even for those currently engaged in this endeavor.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Lauren Bernauer is a PhD candidate in the Studies in Religion department at the University of Sydney. She completed her MPhil in 2007, writing on the computer game Age of Mythology and its portrayal of pre-Christian religion and deities. Her PhD is continuing this topic, though expanding it to include the young teen novel series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, the computer game World of Warcraft, and the Japanese video game Ōkami.  She has had articles recently published in Brill’s Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (article co-authored with Garry W. Trompf) and Handbook of Hyper-real Religions.

References:

  • Brownlow, C. & O’Dell, L., 2002. Ethical Issues for Qualitative Research in On-line Communities. Disablitiy and Society, 17(6), pp.685–694.
  • Denzin, N.K., 1998. In search of the inner child: Co-dependency and gender in cyberspace. In G. Bendelow & S. J. Williams, eds. Emotions in Social Life: Critical themes and contemporary issues. London: Routledge, pp. 97–119.
  • Elm, M.S., 2008. How Do Various Notions of Privacy Influence Decisions in Qualitative Internet Research. In A. N. Markham & N. K. Baym, eds. Internet Inquiry: Conversations about method. London: Sage, pp. 69–87.
  • McKee, H.A. & Porter, J.E., 2009. The Ethics of Internet Research: A Rhetorical, Case-Based Process, New York: Peter Lang.
  • Schrum, L., 1995. Framing the Debate: Ethical research in the Information age. Qualitative Inquiry, 1, pp.311–326.
  • Sharf, B.F., 1999. Beyond netiquette: the ethics of doing naturalistic discourse research on the Internet. In S. Jones, ed. Doing Internet Research: Critical Issues and Methods for Examining the Net. London: Sage, pp. 243–257.
  • Sveningsson, M., 2004. Ethics in Internet Ethnography. In E. A. Buchanan, ed. Readings in Virtual Research Ethics: Issues and Controversies. London: Information Science Publishing, pp. 45–61.

 

Podcasts

Popular Culture Studies and Bruce Springsteen: Escaping and Embracing Religion

Kate McCarthy in 2013, shortly after the re-release of her co-edited volume God in the Details. However, listening back to this unreleased (until now!) interview, her commentary both on the metamorphic nature of popular culture studies and on the music of Bruce Springsteen remain salient and fresh even today. With “the Boss” having just finished his tour in support of the re-released The River and a new solo album planned, it seemed fitting to unearth this interview between McCarthy and A. David Lewis, tracking Springsteen’s relationships to the Church and to women.

This interview was recorded by A. David Lewis – who has been an interviewee on the RSP twice in the past – for a separate project. As fate would have it, the interview has made its way into our hands and we are delighted to bring it to you now.

Video Games and Religious StudiesReligion and Film, Religion and Literature,Visual Culture and the Study of Religion, Religion and Comic Books, and Religion and Cultural Production. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, ornaments, puncture repair kits, and more.

 

Religious Authority and Social Media

Throughout the history of the RSP, we have been privileged to feature a number of interviews and responses which have focused upon the interaction of ‘religion’ with information and communications technology, including Jonathan’s interview with Tim Hutchings on Digital Religion, and Louise’s interview with Heidi Campbell on Religion in a Networked Society. However, up until now, we haven’t paid particular attention to the impact of social media upon ‘religion’ and Religious Studies. Today’s interview features Chris speaking with Pauline Hope Cheong of Arizona State University on the topic of religious authority, the impact of social media upon this aspect of religion, and how scholars can potentially go about utilizing this seemingly infinite repository of information and chatter in their research.

As Cheong herself writes:

Given its rich and variable nature, authority itself is challenging to define and study. Although the words “clergy” and “priests” are commonly used, in the west, to connote religious authority, the variety of related titles is immense (e.g. “pastor,” “vicar,” “monk,” “iman,” “guru,” “rabbi,” etc). Studies focused on religious authority online have been few, compared to studies centered on religious community and identity. Despite interest and acknowledgment of the concept, there is a lack of definitional clarity over authority online, and no comprehensive theory of religious authority… (2013, 73)

Hopefully this interview shall go some way to addressing this lack.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc.

This interview was recorded in London, in June 2013, at the Open University’s Digital Media and Sacred Text Conference. We are very grateful to Tim Hutchings and the Open University for their support in facilitating this recording, and for just generally being awesome.

References and Further Reading

  • Cheong, P.H. (2013) Authority. In H. Campbell (Ed). Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds. Pp 72-87. NY: Routledge
  • Cheong, P.H., P. Fischer-Nielsen, P., S. Gelfgren, & C. Ess (Eds) (2012) Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices, Futures. pp. 1-24. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Cheong, P.H., Hwang, J.M. & Brummans, H.J.M. (forthcoming, 2013). Transnational immanence: The autopoietic co-constitution of a Chinese spiritual organization through mediated organization. Information, Communication & Society.
  • Cheong, P.H., Huang, S.H., & Poon, J.P.H. (2011). Religious Communication and Epistemic Authority of Leaders in Wired Faith Organizations. Journal of Communication, 61 (5), 938-958.
  • Cheong, P.H., Huang, S.H., & Poon, J.P.H (2011). Cultivating online and offline pathways to enlightenment: Religious authority in wired Buddhist organizations. Information, Communication & Society, 14 (8), 1160-1180.

Networked religion, blurring boundaries and shifts in the field of authority

Central to questions of authority is the ability to define the tradition; to define how scripture should be interpreted, and to tell orthodoxy from heresy.

A freehand commentary, published by the Religious Studies Project on 12 June 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Heidi Campbell on Religion in a Networked Society (10 June 2013)

The past 15 years or so have witnessed a period of swift development of the World Wide Web and a wide range of other information and communication technologies (ICTs).  It has also become a truism that individuals, communities and cultures are more interconnected than ever before. This can be seen in all areas of life from economics and entertainment to education, and politics. Religion is no exception, and scholars of religious phenomena have increasingly turned their gaze to the ways in which these new technological possibilities affect religious communities.  As the field of interest has developed, researcher’s foci and insights have followed suit.

The Religious Studies Project’s interview with Heidi Campbell focuses mainly on her recently published article which examines the emergence of both online religion and the way scholars have approached this phenomenon. A key aspect examined in the article is the blurring boundaries between religion online and offline. Campbell uses the term ‘networked religion’ to better grasp the phenomenon.

The questions addressed in the interview are hugely interesting, and the topic is also a tricky one. The impact modern ICTs have on religious communities and religious activity must be mapped in an increasingly fluid and rapidly changing environment, in which distinctions between online and offline, public and private, as well as member and non-member is difficult, and often impossible, to maintain.

Blurred boundaries

Even though it is still technically possible to talk about time spent online and offline, this distinction is, according to Campbell, becoming more and more blurred. In everyday experience, this development seems fairly self-evident, as it is facilitated by the evolving communication technologies themselves. 15 years ago most people only had access to Internet from one or two, clearly defined geographical locations. For me, these were the family computer in our living room, and the single enormous PC with Internet access at the local library (under the watchful eye of the librarian). Growing connection speeds, the development of smart phones and tablets, and increasingly widespread access to wireless networks has made the Internet available almost everywhere. Consequently, ‘being online’ may – and in many cases, has – become a constant feature of everyday life.

Heidi Campbell uses the term networked religion to describe the more or less fused online/offline religion emerging in the digital age. With this term, Campbell wishes to point out how religion has been affected by the new ‘socio-technological infrastructure’ and its logic, much like all other areas of society. The term ‘network’ is probably most well-known from Manuel Castells’ extensive work on the emergence of the network society and the various social implications of the development of ICTs. Network has become a common metaphor in social sciences, but also outside academia.

Campbell mentions five core aspects that constitute a networked religion. These are convergent practice, multisite reality, network community, storied identity and shifts in authority. Although the names are different and the topic discussed here more specialized, these themes strike a familiar chord to many general sociological accounts of developments in contemporary religiosity. Dr Teemu Taira, for example, has written on ‘liquid religiosity’ (2006), which he describes as being individualistic and this-worldly in orientation. In Taira’s view this type of religiosity typically emphasizes the authority of the individual. Spiritual seekership and mix-and-match religiosity is accepted and common. Community formations are often loose networks or ‘coatrack communities’ where individuals come and go as they please. All sorts of religious and spiritual self-help materials, fairs, teachers and groups form a fluid milieu, in which people create their individual spiritual roadmaps – or ‘storied identities’, to borrow Campbell’s terminology.

Even though Taira’s work operates on a rather general level and does not focus on the Internet or ICTs, they are clearly present in his views. Where else can you find as liquid religion as on the Internet, where moving from one society and information source to another is only a matter of clicking a mouse?

An interesting question is, how do we research this type of religiosity and religious communities that are ‘liquid’ or in the state of ‘flux’? I for one am only beginning to examine these tricky methodological issues. On a more quantitative level, all sorts of new computer programs for data mining and network analysis are being developed rapidly. Ethnographically, though, how is it possible to fruitfully approach this kind of networked religion which stretches over the divide between online communities and offline environments, in which memberships are not clearly defined, and even the teachings are more or less open source, available for use and modification?  I am eagerly looking forward to innovative approaches.

Religion and technology

New technologies affect religious practices both directly and indirectly. Religions old and new take up these new tools and move in to these new forums, actively adopting innovative ways of organization, communication and attracting members. Needless to say, these new possibilities are not merely a passive medium in the hands of religion. They may well give rise to new questions and challenges, ranging from practical issues, to ethical and theological dilemmas. They may also affect the expectations people have of their community and of life in general. Some forms of religion handle these changes well, others less so.

New technologies allow for new possibilities for organizing communities, and for communication within communities as well as with the surrounding society. They also create new possibilities for thought and imagination, and so may affect values, expectations, and even inspire the creation of new religions.

An example of such connection between technology and religious thought is presented by Jeremy Stolow in his article Salvation by Electricity (2008). His article examines the relationship between the Spiritualist movement of the early 19th century and the newly invented telegraph. Stolow examines the ways in which Spiritualism developed hand in hand with the new technologies, and how both its ideas and the formation of the movement were in many ways facilitated by the technology. To put things briefly, on a material level, the telegraph made it possible to create loose grassroots networks and share ideas globally. Spirit mediums also found publicity and possibilities of voicing their opinions, thereby challenging powers that be and negotiating anew the existing locations of authority.

On a less tangible level, the new technologies brought with themselves very powerful new imageries. In Spiritualism, one of the most powerful images was electricity. Similarly, the Internet and other ICTs may also have an effect on new religious imaginations. There are religious groups that can be reasonably called digitally based. They may have existed before the Internet started spreading, but the Internet has given them the kind of environment where they can create a relatively free community. One interesting example is the Open Source Religion Project, an online community in which people discuss and debate religious ideas. As the name suggests, Open Source Religion shares the logic of collectively creating something that everyone can develop and improve.

Shifts in authority

The questions of networked religion are also central to my own research project. I am currently studying the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a quasi-religious community that is usually categorized as a spoof religion or a satire with political aims. The aim of my study is to examine precisely the blurring of boundaries – not only the border between online and offline, but also the blurring between the realms of public and private, and of religion, humour and politics.

Campbell notes that, on the one hand, religious communities and individuals online may challenge the authority of traditional authorities. On the other, these traditional authorities themselves have in some cases begun to use these new spaces to reassert their authority. Even the pope has a twitter account.

Central to questions of authority is the ability to define the tradition; to define how scripture should be interpreted, and to tell orthodoxy from heresy.  In the case of many new religious movements, such as some neo-pagan groups, it is not so much about definitions within the tradition but the category of religion in general. This is especially visible in cases where a religious community attempts become a state-recognized religious institution. Having been denied this status, these movements often claim that the definitions used in this legal framework are biased in favour of more established scriptural religions, often Christianity. This in turn creates interesting dilemmas for the state, as it has to define what a religion is and what it is not. Religion was, after all, supposed to be private and consequently not a political issue.

All in all, the interview with Professor Campbell gives a good, concise account on where the development of religion online seems to be headed. This is no small achievement, given the huge complexity of the field of online religion, and I am looking forward to getting my hands on her article. A small problem in general summaries like this is that they often tend to lose edge and become difficult to grasp and apply on a more concrete level.  Nevertheless, I think networked religion seems like a promising tool in examining the messy reality.  In this commentary I have tried to open up some possible fields where Campbell’s formulations could be taken and applied to. The next step is the quest for fruitful research methods…

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Digital CameraHanna Lehtinen is a graduate student and currently an intern in Comparative religion in Turku University, Finland. She is working on her MA thesis on the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Her research interests include parody religions, religious innovation, evolving discourse on religion, and power relations in general. She has also written the essays Divine Inspiration Revisited and What should we do with the study of new religions? for the Religious Studies Project.

 

References

  • Stolow, Jeremy. 2008. Salvation by Electricity pp. 668–686 in Hent de Vries (ed.) 2008: Religion. Beyond a Concept. New York: Fordham.
  • Taira, Teemu. 2006. Notkea uskonto. Published in Eetos-series. Turku: Eetos.

Reflections on Teaching Religious Studies Online

mec2As we find new and innovative ways to teach students, we as instructors are charged (sometimes without formal or proper orientation) to adopt new methods of instruction.

Reflections on Teaching Religious Studies Online

By Christopher F. Silver, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 8 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Doe Daughtrey on Teaching Religious Studies Online (6 May 2013)

This podcast explores the nature of learning within online learning and the benefits and disadvantages of this type of curricular design. The interview was conducted with Doe N Daughtrey an instructor at Arizona State University and at Mesa Community College. While her work falls within a wide range of topics from Mormonism to new forms of spirituality, she speaks to the student and instructor experience of teaching online courses, particularly within the field of Religious Studies. Certainly the online medium in Higher Education has grown exponentially over the past 10 years.  As an instructional tool, it creates some new challenges for the instructor never before encountered within academia. An obvious example noted by Daughtrey is in relation to student interactions within discussion boards. In more traditional classrooms, students are cognizant of their behavior and their exchanges with other students. However, within the virtual world, students appear more bold and vocal in their opinions. Some students struggle not only with writing but proper projection within writing. When writing and responding to fellow students in an online forum, students may not be mindful of others perception. It is difficult for the instructor to instill in students a cultural sensitivity of others who are different from the student.  Congruently, the instructor also has to deal with the permanency of such exchanges as textual exchanges. In a traditional classroom, such exchanges, if they do occur, come and go and the instructor can immediately address and correct inappropriate behavior. Another issue addressed by Daughtrey is the issue of time as related to the course. In traditional classroom exchanges, students and the instructor are in a space together for a specific time frame (McKeachie, 1999). In the online world, the exchanges can be potentially 24 hours depending on the availability of each student and instructor. As far as inappropriate exchanges are concerned, students can have heated or controversial disagreements during times when the instructor is not online to monitor the exchange. Much can happen during that period of time with the potential to spiral into a much larger situation before the instructor is able to intervene.

In addressing such issues and concerns, Daughtrey implies that the textual space of the online course creates a communicative void typically filled with body language and voice inflection in traditional classrooms. As a potential solution to such situations, Daughtrey has used voice recordings in lieu of textual responses for her students. This at least provides the students with her voice inflection in which to infer intention from her feedback. She notes that this has been helpful in her online courses. Another solution Daughtrey proposes is for students to keep a private online journal of their thoughts. This helps keep sensitive discussions and thoughts out of the online forums insuring smoother online courses.  Finally one of the other telling themes of Daughtrey’s podcast is the limitation of online resources for Religious Studies courses. Daughtrey argues that there are many online resources which can assist in the construction of online courses, but that there is no content specific support for Religious Studies. Such support would help in the delivery of student education. She suggests that more should be done to address content and curricular issues in detail.

In reviewing this podcast, there are a couple of issues which arise. I think it is important to provide the reader with my own background here, as much of the conversation speaks to experience and not simply to instructional design and implementation. My own education has been a nexus of three fields of study: Psychology, Religious Studies, and Education. Much like Dr. Daughtrey, I have taught online courses in a variety of fields including Religious Studies online. Many of the concerns that she notes within the podcast are a common theme in teaching Religious Studies at a secular institution. Certainly when coupled with a largely conservative religious landscape among the student body, issues of ontology will certainly arise. Online learning provides a much more personal space in which to communicate opinions and ideas. In this regard, some students may assume that radical opinions and a lack of social mindfulness have no implications. For instructors such assumptions create issues. Certainly the formality and etiquette of the classroom may not translate into the online medium of instruction. I would propose an alternative method for addressing such issues. Many of the concerns related to behavior and content are related to the asynchronous method of online instruction. This method is called asynchronous because the content is unidirectional. For example discussion boards, YouTube videos, even this Podcast is an example of a unidirectional delivery of information. Its antithesis is called synchronous learning. It is a real time exchange of information. Examples of this might be a video conference on Adobe Connect, GoToMeeting, a live chat room in real time, or even a phone conversation.  I would suggest that online instruction should be a hybrid of synchronous and asynchronous delivery models for optimal learning. Certainly if a university does not have the resources for synchronous online instruction, there are some free open source alternative programs to assist an inspiring instructor.  This at least allows the interaction between student and teacher and presents information in a traditional format of instruction. Instructors can then project their personality into their instruction beyond a textual exchange. Moreover, students can interact in real time learning the social expectations of the instructor.  This is important when considering the challenges of teaching a controversial topic such as religion (Carlson and Blumenstyk, 2012).

While religion is a social norm for many in the United States and beyond, certainly social norms and classroom culture are a complex issue for many instructors. Not all students ascribe to a post-modern paradigm of different yet equal among the growing multicultural and multiethnic American and Western European populations. Some regard their coexistence with those who view religion or even race differently as a necessary evil of public education. Much of the confusion noted by Daughtrey in regards to online education is that the online world may be implicitly perceived as our private space of interaction, where the rules and values we ascribe to within daily interactions do not apply in the online discussion board. We as instructors are no longer simply Teachers or Professors but a combination of Information Technology Professionals and Cultural Advocates all wrapped into one role. While I cannot speak to the religious landscape of Arizona, I can speak to the Southeastern United States. I, too, teach in secular college and university. Much of the curricular agenda is dependent on accreditation and course objectives.  Still, instructors must create the perception of value for Religious Studies education and encourage students to learn more about the world in which they live. In my own courses, such discussions are heated simply because religion is equated with Christianity. The idea that other religions would be academically equal to Christianity can be offensive to some students. For many of my students, religion is a form of personal identity. It is who we are, not simply a belief or what we do. Many cannot compartmentalize it or objectify their belief. Therefore to have such discussions, academic or otherwise, requires a new paradigm of behavior and inquiry in religion’s examination by students. This type of student internalization of religious identity and perceived threat is not limited to the field of Religious Studies.  For example, a colleague of mine and psychologist of religion Michael Nielsen at Georgia Southern had a similar experience.  As Nielsen (2012) has noted, many students come to courses on religious topics either assuming the content will confirm their ontological position or to argue for their belief as the dominant truth. Nielsen’s perspective is but one of many examples where students do not understand the overall curricular purpose and goal of academic explorations of religion. They want to internalize it in some way.

This Podcast primarily focuses on instructional issues related to teaching Religious Studies online. These issues are certainly juxtaposed within the secular state-run institution of higher learning. It is likely that there are differences in the liberal arts and religiously affiliated styles of Higher Education. I would suggest that they likely differ in their curricular goals depending on the overall mission of the college or university. It is unclear how these differences translate in online learning and education. Certainly, it would have been interesting if Dr. Daughtrey would have addressed such differences within her podcast. Additionally, I am left with the question of curricular structure. What are some of the different ways Religious Studies are taught and the resources which may be available to a new instructor charged with online learning? It would be nice to see a conversation which goes beyond the politics of religious identity and online learning (although this is certainly an interesting topic overall).  With differences in Religious Studies educational theory, there may yet be another layer to the instructional onion we call religious education. With these criticisms in mind, this is not to say that the experiential perspective is not useful in education. In fact, this is the meat of an instructional design model. As we find new and innovative ways to teach students, we as instructors are charged (sometimes without formal or proper orientation) to adopt new methods of instruction. While one may argue that a good instructor should always be learning, there is likely a point of diminishing returns in which the instructor is expending energy in acquiring new instructional skillsets such as the various Online Learning Systems (OLS) while also tracking and evaluating student performance within their course. Professors may not have the time to devote to learning all the features of OLS and therefore the overall instructional product may suffer from skillset limitations. Additionally, institutions may be tempted to increase enrollment in online classes to save money, further diverting the instructor from exploring their research areas as well as gaining additional OLS skills. So certainly the economics of online learning play a role here too.

There is no doubt that OLS models of learning have benefits and disadvantages in academia. As a former Information Technology Professional and, typically, an early adopter of new technologies, I view online learning with circumspect. If it is to be incorporated, it should be a hybrid delivery model with classroom and online time for the students. If that is not possible, then the instructional design should include synchronous and asynchronous delivery of material. Evaluation of student performance is not simply about assignment quality and test accuracy, but it is about the real-time monitoring of learning, the observation of the student as they make their academic journey. Online learning loses the thrill of watching students achieve their “Aha” moments. There needs to be a technological solution found to incorporate the human aspects of the classroom in online learning.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

mec2Christopher F. Silver is an Ed. D. Candidate in Education and Leadership at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga USA. He has a masters degree in research psychology from the UT Chattanooga and a masters degree in Religion and Culture from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Ontario Canada. He is currently conducting research on American Atheism exploring the complexities of self-identity adjectives in how atheist and agnostic participants self-describe. In addition, Mr. Silver also serves as an instructor at UT Chattanooga teaching courses in psychology and currently serves as an information technology research consultant.

Mr. Silver has collaborated in the fields of religious studies, psychology and sociology of religion. His current collaboration is as a research manager for the US team of the Bielefeld (Germany) International Study of Spirituality. His email address is Christopher-Silver@utc.edu. He is also an Assistant Editor at the Religious Studies Project, and has conducted a number of interviews, and previously written the piece A Word by Any Other Name: The Emergent Field of Non-religion and the Implications for Social Meaning for the website.

References

  • McKeachie, W. J. (1999). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Nielsen, M. (2012). Teaching Psychology of Religion at a state university. Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality Newsletter, 36(2), 2-5.
  • Carlson, S. & Blumenstyk, G. (2012). For Whom is college being reinvented? The Chronicle of Higher Education. 59(17).

Ethics on the Internet: Public versus Private, is it that simple?

Ethics on the Internet: Public versus Private, is it that simple?

By Lauren Bernauer, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 3 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Tim Hutchings on Digital Religion (1 October 2012).

In this week’s podcast about religion and digital media, Tim Hutchings and Jonathan Tuckett discuss various areas of current research into religion and digital media, such as use of online forums, creation of prayer groups and pages, and also the use of virtual worlds like Second Life in people’s religiosity, and the ability to construct churches and temples in such settings.  My own research deals with digital media and religion, although is more about the religious content of that media than how religious people might engage with it. Yet, I must still examine forums and blogs for general fan reactions to such content, and it is the potential ethics around this type of research practice that will be the focus of this discussion.

When it comes to discovering a community’s response to an issue of interest, the Internet serves as a great resource, for often people will share their opinions on public forums and blogs for the rest of the world to read.  For a researcher this is an easy way to gather material for an argument without having to engage with an ethics committee, or even with the people writing the forum or blog posts.  As these people have made their posts public, they will be found via search engines or the simple browsing of a forum or website. Thus it is generally considered that this content is public domain (McKee & Porter 2009, p.9). However there is some evidence that attitudes towards this are changing.

Before discussing the changes that are occurring in some universities around ethics, the issue of what constitutes ‘public’ and ‘private’ on the Internet should also be considered.  Some might view this simply as a case of: if it can be read without having to sign up and potentially have someone approve your membership, then it is public content.  However, as some scholars have rightly pointed out, just because the place is viewable to all, it does not mean that the members consider their discussions to be public (Elm 2008).  An example of this is Norman K. Denzin’s research of people’s use of a Usenet group to discuss their emotional stories related to destructive relationships (Denzin 1998).  As the archives of this group are open access, Denzin was freely able to find and use the information that members of the community posted, without having to seek consent for its use.  Despite the group’s posting archive being publicly accessible, the people who posted their private stories may not have intended for them to be read by an outsider, someone who had not been involved in similar abusive emotional situations.

Denzin’s research did occur some fourteen years ago when the Internet was still relatively new and not as widespread as it is now. Yet, about the same length of time ago, in 1995, Lynne Schrum wrote on ethics for Internet research, and how the ethics used in standard research might be adapted for those doing research online.  Under the concept of Privacy she writes:

Closely related to unintended or unanticipated harm, the issue of privacy evokes strong emotions among researchers.  Guba and Lincoln (1989) maintain that privacy and confidentiality have also been defined too narrowly, so that the personal space of individuals, including many areas of intense and private significance, are too often considered by researchers to be open to investigation. (Schrum 1995, p.315)

In their recent work, The Ethics of Internet Research (2009), Heidi A. McKee and James E. Porter have built upon the previous research of Mali Sveningsson (2004) to map where statements and information a person reveals online might sit on an X-Y grid.  The X axis represents Private to Public, while the Y axis scales Non-Sensitive to Sensitive.  McKee and Porter add to this by determining that if information can be placed in the Public-Non-Sensitive quadrant or just outside of it, the information should be regarded as not requiring informed consent.  Examples given include; a resume listed online is Private but Non-Sensitive and thus would not need informed consent, while a public blog discussing a personal account of abuse, despite being Public is highly Sensitive and informed consent should be obtained before using the information in research (McKee & Porter 2009, pp.20–21).

My research deals with statements and information in the Public-Non-Sensitive quadrant, and as this is the case, should consent be gained from those whose public forum posts I have quoted?  I do not actively engage with these communities, or even actively ‘lurk’, which is considered an advantageous research method by some (Brownlow & O’Dell 2002, p.685), yet the guidelines created by Barbara F. Sharf after her research and communication with an online Breast Cancer support group would suggest that I should (Sharf 1999, pp.254–255).  However it would seem that Sharf’s research would fall into the Sensitive half of Sveningsson’s grid, and as she was actively engaging with the participants of the community, informed consent does seem to be important.

The issues surrounding ethics when researching online and utilising information provided seemingly freely by members of different communities are not clear.  For those interviewing and engaging with people via a digital medium for their research it would seem only sensible that they follow standard ethical guidelines and obtain ethics clearance, just as they would for face-to-face interviews.  Yet, what is not clear is casual observation of forum posting, reading the comments on a YouTube video or blog post.  If it is viewable by all, is it public domain?  Denzin considered it so, yet the Private-Public/Non-Sensitive-Sensitive grid, and our own implicit understanding of prevalent posting habits, would deem that some information of that nature requires informed consent.

At my own institution there are some changes occurring in regards to ethics clearance, primarily for postgraduate students, as it would appear a large number of them are not aware that their research may need an ethics clearance.  In Australia if research is done without approval from an ethics committee, this does not prevent the student receiving a successful Master of Philosophy or PhD examination. However it does deem their dissertations unpublishable, and thus stalls their hopes of an academic career.  One solution to this is to have new postgraduate students complete an ethics clearance form or provide a written acknowledgement of having read through the form to ensure that if they will be conducting interviews or similar for their research they are aware of what is required of them in terms of the law.

There is also discussion of changes being made to ethics clearances regarding online research. Currently this is not required for type of work I do, but in three to five years that could change, with lurking on forums to be considered worthy of seeking ethics committee approval.  This ultimately has to do with potential changes in Australian law, with which ethics committees in research institutions would have to comply.

While ethics regarding research on the internet has been discussed and methods have been proposed for years, it is still something that is unclear and worked out on a ‘case by case’ basis by ethics boards and committees. Although such research is quite common and the Internet is widely used, online research is relatively new. It is safe to conclude that how to tackle the issue of ethical research online will still take some time, even for those currently engaged in this endeavor.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Lauren Bernauer is a PhD candidate in the Studies in Religion department at the University of Sydney. She completed her MPhil in 2007, writing on the computer game Age of Mythology and its portrayal of pre-Christian religion and deities. Her PhD is continuing this topic, though expanding it to include the young teen novel series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, the computer game World of Warcraft, and the Japanese video game Ōkami.  She has had articles recently published in Brill’s Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (article co-authored with Garry W. Trompf) and Handbook of Hyper-real Religions.

References:

  • Brownlow, C. & O’Dell, L., 2002. Ethical Issues for Qualitative Research in On-line Communities. Disablitiy and Society, 17(6), pp.685–694.
  • Denzin, N.K., 1998. In search of the inner child: Co-dependency and gender in cyberspace. In G. Bendelow & S. J. Williams, eds. Emotions in Social Life: Critical themes and contemporary issues. London: Routledge, pp. 97–119.
  • Elm, M.S., 2008. How Do Various Notions of Privacy Influence Decisions in Qualitative Internet Research. In A. N. Markham & N. K. Baym, eds. Internet Inquiry: Conversations about method. London: Sage, pp. 69–87.
  • McKee, H.A. & Porter, J.E., 2009. The Ethics of Internet Research: A Rhetorical, Case-Based Process, New York: Peter Lang.
  • Schrum, L., 1995. Framing the Debate: Ethical research in the Information age. Qualitative Inquiry, 1, pp.311–326.
  • Sharf, B.F., 1999. Beyond netiquette: the ethics of doing naturalistic discourse research on the Internet. In S. Jones, ed. Doing Internet Research: Critical Issues and Methods for Examining the Net. London: Sage, pp. 243–257.
  • Sveningsson, M., 2004. Ethics in Internet Ethnography. In E. A. Buchanan, ed. Readings in Virtual Research Ethics: Issues and Controversies. London: Information Science Publishing, pp. 45–61.