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Surveying the Sacred and Secular

The RSP’s interview with Darren Sherkat arrives at a time when research on religion has caught a bit of the media spotlight. Both The Atlantic and Religion Dispatches recently touched on issues with surveys in their reviews of Robert Wuthnow’s new book, Inventing American Religion. In this book, Wuthnow argues that the turn toward survey research shaped our perceptions of “American” religion by producing some stark generalizations, because religious experiences are simply too complex to reduce to national trends captured by survey questions alone (2015:13). I enjoyed the RSP’s interview in light of these challenges because Sherkat reminds us what goes into good polling, why we still do it, and what important lessons it can provide for both social scientists studying religion and the broader public.

What goes into good survey research?

Sherkat and Wuthnow do agree on some major points. We should ask for fewer, larger, and higher quality survey studies rather than just polling willy-nilly. My dissertation research looks at the political impact of the growing non-religious population in the United States, and so I spend a lot of time between surveys on both religion and politics, which face their own challenges during this pre-election season.

Part of the reason polling gets a bad rap is the valid criticism that survey questions cannot capture the nuances of respondents’ beliefs and values, and they are therefore not a good representation of respondents’ religious lives. Fair enough, and sociological research has long challenged the idea that public opinion is good at reflecting the reality of respondents’ conscious thoughts and beliefs. Sherkat gets at this point when he highlights the differences between identities and identifications—a gap between how people think about their religious experiences and whether they affiliate with institutions or established systems of belief. Rather than claim they can capture the nuances of identity, a lot of research thinks about public opinion as a way to capture bigger cultural styles using a “dual process” theory of cognition. This means it is less interested in figuring out what groups of people consciously believe, think about, or talk about. Instead, this work focuses on finding patterns in how people make quick judgements. With a good representative sample, we can learn about how religion shapes the way people answer new questions, rather than what they believe about the issues alone.

Why does that matter?

As Sherkat discusses in this interview, “nones” make up about 20% of the American population. This group makes a great case study for why survey work still matters despite its challenges. Researchers in my field have done a lot of excellent qualitative work looking at non-religious people in the United States. They find that non-religious experiences are just as complex and diverse as religious experiences. We have spiritual but not religious folks, atheists, agnostics, deists, brights, “nothing in particulars”, post-religious people, six kinds of atheism, four ways of talking about the secular, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Even if the “nones” feel a common affinity toward one another for breaking from religious affiliation, underneath the surface they do not agree on much. From the perspective of this qualitative work, this 20% of the U.S. population is not homogeneous; it has substantial ideological and philosophical diversity.

As Sherkat points out in the interview, however, ethnographic research alone can also skew our picture of what is going on if the sub-groups of interest are quite small. This is not at all to say studying a small group is not important, only that we have to remember to step back and synthesize those lived experiences with a larger structural picture. Survey research so far shows us that Americans who disaffiliate from religion often share one particular cultural style: a preference for personal autonomy over received authority (Hout and Fischer 2014). In their new book, American Secularism, Baker and Smith (2015:92) show that atheists, agnostics, and unaffiliated believers have a variety of personal spiritual practices, but they also share a “relatively uniform disengagement from public religion.” When we design survey questions from the ground up based on qualitative findings, as Marcus Mann (2015) did in his study of political and communal motivations for joining local and national atheist groups, we can test whether those findings hold for a range of people and represent a distinct cultural pattern. 20% of the U.S. population with a unique style of evaluating political information could have a huge impact, but we still need quality survey research to test whether these patterns exist and what they do.

What should we do?

One interpretation of Wuthnow’s valid critique of surveys is that our reliance on polling marginalizes the most meaningful religious experiences. Emma Green, writing in The Atlantic , provides the following take on Wuthnow’s work:

Polling has become the only polite language for talking about religious experience in public life…If you mourn anything, mourn the meaningful Grappling With Existence that has to happen in private spaces, rather than public ones, an experience that’s not well-understood or often taken seriously.

Sherkat’s interview reminds us that a lot of the polls facing this criticism are also not ideal sources for scientific research, and survey work is still an important way to understand the American (non)religious experience. To steal a line from my advisor, for each person “grappling with existence” there’s another making a grocery list in church. If big survey research alone often misses the former, sifting for the interesting personal story alone can risk missing the later. Synthesizing both lets us clearly define what parts of religiosity we want to measure, such as whether we are interested in atheism as non-belief or a label with which respondents identify. This often means going back to the drawing board and critiquing long-standing survey questions, but if we put our efforts into good design grounded in testing the findings from qualitative researchers, we stand to gain a lot more than we do by turning away from surveys altogether.

For work on cultural styles, (non)religion, and public opinion, see:

Baker, Joseph O. and Buster G. Smith. 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. New York: NYU Press.

Blankholm, Joseph. 2014. “The Political Advantages of a Polysemous Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53(4):775–90.

Edgell, Penny. 2012. “A Cultural Sociology of Religion: New Directions.” Annual Review of Sociology 38(1):247–65.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2001. “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.” Psychological Review 108(4):814–34.

Hout, Michael and Claude Fischer. 2014. “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987-2012.” Sociological Science 1:423–47.

Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67(2):165–90.

Mann, Marcus. 2015. “Triangle Atheists: Stigma, Identity, and Community Among Atheists in North Carolina’s Triangle Region.” Secularism and Nonreligion, 4(11): 1–12 http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/snr.bd

Perrin, Andrew J. and Katherine McFarland. 2011. “Social Theory and Public Opinion.” Annual Review of Sociology 37(1):87–107.

Perrin, Andrew J., J. Micah Roos, and Gordon W. Gauchat. 2014. “From Coalition to Constraint: Modes of Thought in Contemporary American Conservatism.” Sociological Forum 29(2):285–300.

Silver, Christopher F., Thomas J. Coleman III, Ralph W. Hood Jr, and Jenny M. Holcombe. 2014. “The Six Types of Nonbelief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 17(10):990–1001.

Vaisey, Stephen. 2009. “Motivation and Justification: A Dual‐Process Model of Culture in Action.” American Journal of Sociology 114(6):1675–1715.

Experiences Deemed Religious from Micro and Qualitative to Macro and Quantitative

Overview

This joint Religious Studies Project/SSSR session was a symposium that included four presentations, all focused on some variation on the topic of “religious experiences,” a category better described as experiences deemed religious (EDRs; Taves, 2009). Beyond that idea in the symposium summary, the only similarity among the presentations was that that they were almost purely descriptive. There was little if any theoretical synthesis, either psychologically or sociologically, to help the audience gain a conceptual understanding of the processes mediating these or other EDRs.

The combined result of the four presentations is certainly positive for purposes of illustrating ways that qualitative or quantitative research on EDRs can be executed. Three of the four presentations also gave the viewer-listener a relatively vivid picture of the questions posed, the participants involved, and what was actually learned from the studies. This is, of course, all good. The downside, however, which is not at all unusual for symposia of this sort, was that the methods and findings were presented and the presentation then stopped, usually for reasons of time.

As an observer-listener I was left with an illuminating picture of what the researchers were trying to get at and what they found. However, my mind strained at the theoretical emptiness left in their wake – my intellectual need to dig deeper and understand why the findings were what they were. That, of course, is the much more difficult task.

Presentations Snapshot

A brief summary of the presentations looks like this:

(1) In Study 1, seven people were interviewed who are active in Christian snake-handling sects in the rural Southern U.S. states. Their beliefs and practices are derived from a literal application of the “five signs” said to follow believers as listed in the last chapter of the Gospel of Mark. The two life-threatening signs are handling poisonous snakes and drinking deadly poison; Each participant had done both. The interviews focused on the phenomenology of drinking strychnine. In order to confirm its toxicity, an independent lab examined a sample of the liquid used; it was confirmed lethal. Reported effects included a powerful sense of awe, “victory,” a “rush” or mental “high,” and sensations such as peace, joy, satisfaction, and spiritual perfection.

(2) In Study 2, several modern Christian churches were observed, and their clergy interviewed, about the role of popular secular and religious music in worship services. The interviews showed that, for these ministers and worshipers, secular music is thought to be “more real” in helping people confront their own shortcomings. It is included such services in order to facilitate an internal sense of honesty, while comfort and hope are subsequently provided by religious music and other non-musical aspects of the service.

(3) Study 3 focused on natural disaster relief and symptoms of PTSD, as approached by clergy and others in Japan, the U.S., and the Philippines. Clergy of various religions, including Christians and Buddhists, completed questionnaires that asked, for instance, how they perceived disasters, whether they had an obligation to help victims or pray with victims, whether they thought disasters were God’s will, if they see signs of PTSD or lesser symptoms in those they help. The results generally affirmed the clergy’s motivation to help, which seem to help decrease the suffering of the victims.

(4) In Study 4, although research was referred to, the main argument was that researchers should get away from doing research only within their narrow disciplinary boundaries. It was proposed that we should instead aim to “highlight the lines of continuity” between disciplines through research that, for example, combines social and natural scientific methods, using methods that exploit the potentials for cooperative effort between fields.

Qualitative and Quantitative Methods

To be fair, the four presentations were so varied that I would not expect to be able to view them, with much accuracy, through only one theoretical or methodological lens. Study 1 was a content analysis of seven interviews aimed at creating a clear, accurate picture of the mental experiences of people that had drunk a poison. With the research goal thus defined and the available N so small, an in-depth interview method is the way to go. Qualitative methodologies of this sort yield a vividness and completeness in the data that physiological recordings cannot produce.

Does this mean that qualitative research is better than quantitative research? No. Nor does it mean it is worse. It means that for a research question posed as this one was, a qualitative method is better equipped to answer it with data of the form most meaningful to the question. Qualitative methods, such as the use of questionnaires in Study 3, are desirable when the research intent is to go deeply into single cases and yield the most complete graphic possible of what is being examined, whether the case is an individual human, as occurs in psychological research, or an individual village, as in anthropological research. Such methods yield a form of data that are sometimes referred to as “deeper” and “richer.” That is their gift and their strength. Vivid pictures of the phenomenology of EDRs can be painted with such methods.

With the strength of a research method, however, there is a corresponding weakness. And these weaknesses turn out to be overcome by the strengths of other, “opposite” kinds of methods. In the case of the small-N phenomenological interview methods used in Study 1, weaknesses include difficulties in going beyond describing the subjects’ experiences to test theoretical predictions about what might happen mentally when someone drinks poison (or does anything else), why the experience might be interpreted in one way or another by the individual, ways people might respond when the experience is discrepant from that which was anticipated, and so forth. Answers to questions phrased in these ways are more amenable to quantitative approaches that allow for testing hypotheses derived from theories about the processes operating inside human minds, such as, the processes that mediate interpretations and responses to unusual mental events, and the consideration their social and physical contexts. Nonetheless, the theoretical gains of using quantitative methods not infrequently come with a loss of the benefits of qualitative methods.

Multilevel Interdisciplinary Paradigm

What is the solution? The main argument of Study 4 was that for comprehensive knowledge to emerge, we must do more research that combines approaches from different disciplines. I have written extensively about this approach, which I call the multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm (MIP; Paloutzian & Park, 2013; Park & Paloutzian, 2013). It involves researchers from different disciplines not just telling others about their research, but engaging in genuine collaborative work around common questions that cannot be answered by one discipline alone. I think future research within the MIP will demonstrate its capability to accomplish the goals of both qualitative and quantitative research, both within disciplines and across their borders.

References

Paloutzian, R. F., & Park, C. L. (2013). Recent progress and core issues in the science of the psychology of religion and spirituality. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2nd ed. (pp. 3-22). New York: Guilford.

Park, C. L., & Paloutzian, R. F. (2013). Directions for the future of the psychology of religion and spirituality: Research advances in methodology and meaning systems. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2nd ed. (pp. 651-665). New York: Guilford.

Taves, A. (2009). Religious experience reconsidered: A building block approach to the study of religion and other special things. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mormonism, Growth and Decline

Mormonism – or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) – exploded onto the scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the United States of America, and has courted controversy ever since. From the recent upsurge in worldwide visibility of Mormonism due to the widespread attention given to the religious identity of Mitt Romney (the Republican Candidate in the 2012 US Presidential elections), to the huge success of the Southpark creators’ hit musical The Book of Mormon, there is no shortage of ill-informed opinion surrounding this group. Unsurprisingly, the academic study of religion has its own questions about Mormonism: can it be described as a New Religious Movement? Is there a unified phenomenon which can be classified as Mormonism? Is Mormonism to be considered as a form of Christianity? This week, Chris is joined by Ryan Cragun – Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida – to discuss not only these conceptual issues, but issues relating specifically to quantitative research, Mormon demographics, and the worldwide growth and decline of the LDS Church.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter.

What numbers should a quantitative scholar use when ‘counting’ Mormonism? Who does the categorization? Is Mormonism outside of the US different? In what ways? And what about Mormonism in the ‘heartland’ of Utah? These are just some of the questions which come up in the interview, and Professor Cragun provides a great introduction not only to Mormonism and quantitative research, but also to Mormon growth and decline in the context of the secularization thesis, and to the intricate relationships and correlations which can be observed between LDS membership and factors such as gender, employment, education, and ethnicity.

A number of papers are referred to in this interview, including Comparing the Geographic Distributions and Growth of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses, The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists, and The Price of Free Inquiry in Mormonism, all of which can be accessed on Ryan’s personal website. Ryan Cragun is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida. He is author and co-author of many peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of Contemporary Relgiion, Sociology of Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and more, and is the co-author (with Rick Phillips) of Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election Year Guide to Mitt Romney’s Religion (2012), and author of the forthcoming What You Don’t Know About Religion (but Should).

This interview was recorded in the business centre at the Lord Elgin Hotel, Ottawa during the Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts Conference. We are grateful to everyone who facilitated the recording in any way.

James R. Lewis

Who joins New Religious Movements?

James R. Lewis was kind enough to have a chat with us at the 2012 EASR conference in Stockholm despite having a sore throat due to a cold. Lewis has been involved in research on new religious movements (NRMs) since the early late 1980s and has both written and edited extensively on the subject. In this episode of the Religious Studies Project, Lewis shares some of his views on the study of NRMs. It seems, claims Lewis, that our current generalizations about who joins such movements is based on outdated statistics. It seems no longer to be the case that it is primarily young people who join NMRs, rather joiners’ age has increased during recent decades. This demonstrates why we need more and better quantitative data. James and Knut also talk a bit about the situation in Norway when it comes to research on NRMs.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

James R. Lewis

James R. Lewis is a associate professor of religious studies at the University of Tromsø. Among Lewis’ latest titles are the monographs Children of Jesus and Mary: The Order of Christ Sophia (2009) and the forthcoming Embracing the Darkness: Modern Satanism (with Asbjørn Dyrendal & Jesper A. Petersen) and Routledge Introduction to New Religious Movements. Among his edited collections are Violence and New Religious Movements (2011) and Handbook of Religious and the Authority of Science (2010, with Olav Hammer). Lewis is also editor of Brill’s Handbooks on Contemporary Religion series. He co-founded the International Society for the Study of New Religions. The full publication list can be found here.

Names, books and other things mentioned in the podcast:

Editors’ Picks 1: Losing Religion

In this, the first of four summer break Editor’s Picks “repodcasts”, Louise Connelly reintroduces Chris’s interview with Callum Brown, first broadcast on 30/4/2012. How can we use historical approaches in the study of religion? More specifically, can we use historical approaches to understand why people are losing it? Professor Callum Brown tells us why historical approaches have much to tell us about religious change.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Should Religious Studies be Multidisciplinary?

Nuancing the Qual-Quan Divide: The Vitality of Research Methods in the Academic Study of Religion

Nuancing the Qual-Quan Divide:The Vitality of Research Methods in the Academic Study of Religion

By Yasaman S. Munro, Wilfrid Laurier University

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 4 July 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with David Voas on Quantitative Research (2 July 2012).

By using “vitality” in the title above, I mean to point to two aspects of the same urgent call. First, I simply mean that research methods are vital to the academic study of religion. As Stausberg and Engler suggest, “it is through methods that data and theory speak to each other and become part of a shared horizon” (2011: 11), and indeed it is still not a platitude to recall that theory, method and data can be considered three sides of that triangle we conjure, whether implicitly or explicitly, whenever we conduct research in this discipline. Second, I mean to claim that the active engagement of students and scholars embedded in the study of religion with research methods contributes to the ongoing vitality of our discipline. Please allow me to elaborate.

In this interview with Professor David Voas—a social scientist in Britain specializing in demography, and a scholar who is deeply involved in quantitative research himself—interviewer David Robertson asks about the oft-cited distinction between quantitative and qualitative research. I’d like to comment on this, specifically on what my own social research methods professor called the “qual-quan” divide. Professor Voas goes so far as to contrast the “qualitative people” to scholars using quantitative methods. Yet, what he does hint at, but has not had a chance to elaborate upon here in this short interview, is that the division between qualitative and quantitative research methods can be quite blurry in practice, and furthermore, they can and often are used in conjunction, as for instance in mixed methods research (Stausberg and Engler 2011: 13). Both Voas and Robertson themselves point to what could arguably be considered qualitative problems inherent in quantitative research designs, namely issues around designing valid questionnaires to administer to an appropriate sample of people in order to address specific research questions. Or, for example, in my own research on domestic health and healing practices among Hindu migrants in Canada, I have found myself asking interviewees what Voas refers to as the “how much, to what extent” sorts of questions that could be classified as quantitative questions.

But, even more significant than recognizing this blurry divide is what I noticed in this podcast to be a tendency not to nuance either qualitative and quantitative research methods. Voas rightly points to the usually forgotten difference between methods of data collection and analysis, considering surveys conducted among individuals or organizations. He also outlines some pros and cons for using primary and secondary data collection and analysis. What seems to be missing here is the acknowledgement that both quantitative and qualitative research often involves far more than simply statistical data gleaned from surveys, or in-person interviews, respectively.

Michael Stausberg and Steven Engler’s recent edited volume is a breath of the proverbial fresh air in this regard. In this pioneering handbook on research methods in the study of religion, the editors and the diverse contributors consider a wide variety of research designs, data analysis and collection strategies. Included are everything from issues in research ethics and hermeneutics to network analysis and material culture. Another recent work, by Hilary Rodrigues and John S. Harding, does address approaches to the study of religion—a subject area for which Walter Capps (1995) deserves a notable mention—and would be more suitable for undergraduate students being introduced to research methods. Those of us immersed in religious studies would benefit from pursuing works like these.

Why are research methods so vital to us? A while ago Russell McCutcheon (1997) called on us to pay more critical attention to theory (and method) in the study of religion. We do have a number of important works dealing with theoretical topics in the study of religion (e.g. Braun and McCutcheon 2000; Hinnells 2005; Taylor 1998), and as Stausberg and Engler have in my opinion rightly claimed, our Method and Theory courses have tended to focus more on theory than on method per se. Furthermore, as Capps among others, has reminded us, “where one stands determines what one sees and what one can know” (1995: 334-5); arguably both our theories and methods are implicated in where we stand. Because our methods, just as it is the case with our theories, play such a vital part in structuring, and arguably even producing, the data we find in our research, when we do not explicitly address our research methods, we are not adequately taking advantage of the resources we have to render high quality research. We could more clearly examine our research questions, our methods for data collection and analysis (beyond simply claiming we are conducting “quantitative” or “qualitative” research), and we could more explicitly employ strategies to establish our project’s methodological credibility, among other things. We are each encouraged to immerse ourselves in these sorts of things not only for the sake of our own ongoing research but because doing so will benefit the students and colleagues whose research we continue to help foster together.

Given the interviewee’s background, the interview tends to focus on issues that are usually important to scholars practicing the sociology of religion, issues such as how to measure the degree of religiosity of adherents, and how demographic factors are complicit in these processes. The interview could therefore more accurately be titled “Quantitative Research in the Sociology of Religion in Europe and the United States.” What is important to note here is that Voas’ perspectives on the value of quantitative research, involving particular data collection and analysis strategies (especially those involving large-scale surveys), while valuable, do stem from his adherence to the particular research questions of concern to him. What listeners are therefore exposed to here does not by any means exhaust the possibilities for research designs available to other kinds of scholars carrying out other kinds of research in our multi-faceted discipline.

At the end of the interview, Voas and Robertson encourage young scholars to engage with quantitative research methods. While I wholeheartedly support their inviting sentiments, I suggest it is vital for students and scholars of religion to pay closer attention to research methods more generally. As I have heard often enough in multiple places, the research questions are what ultimately drive the method, and therefore quantitative research designs may not be suitable for all projects. In my own doctoral research, for example, I have found the use of semi-structured interviews in domestic spaces and photography of household medical items indispensable for addressing my particular research questions.

It was a pleasure listening to what I hope to be the first of several more podcasts addressing the richly various aspects of research methods in our discipline. The interview does provide listeners with a good introduction to some important topics, such as validity, sampling, and generalizability. Still, given that research methods courses are a long way from being abundantly accessible to students in the discipline, students (and scholars) of religious studies would benefit from continually engaging with some of the established and emerging literature on research design and methodology so they can further nuance their understandings (e.g. Creswell 2009; Bryman, Teevan and Bell 2009; Berg 2007; Denzin and Lincoln 2011). I have been fortunate in that at my academic institution we have had a “Fieldworkers’ Group” meeting at least once a term for several years to discuss issues we have collectively experienced in mostly anthropological fieldwork. Indeed, beyond classroom and textbook, we all might find it helpful to engage more in occasional roundtables at conferences or at our institutions to discuss best practices in our ongoing adventures with research methods.

I therefore join Stausberg and Engler among others in inviting students and scholars in our discipline to open the lines of dialogue and debate on the vital topic of research methods in the academic study of religion, otherwise our research triangles run the risk of looking a bit more like boomerangs.

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:

Yasaman S. Munro is a PhD candidate in the joint Wilfrid Laurier University-University of Waterloo Religious Diversity in North America doctoral program. Her doctoral research focuses on relational and material dimensions of Āyurveda and associated South Asian medical modalities unfolding in the domestic spaces of Hindu migrants in the Waterloo Region of Canada. In particular, she is tracing how the health and healing ideas and practices manifesting in these spaces are linked to those elsewhere and at other times, and what these can tell us about people’s religious and other social identities. More broadly, Yasaman’s work examines intersections between what we call “religion” and “health” from a multidisciplinary approach.

References:

Berg, Bruce L. (2007). Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences, Sixth Edition. Long Beach: California State University.

Braun, Willi, and Russell McCutcheon, Eds. (2000). Guide to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Cassell.

Bryman, Alan, James J. Teevan and Edward Bell. (2009). Social Research Methods, Second Canadian Edition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Capps, Walter H. (1995). Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Creswell, John W. (2009). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Denzin, Norman K., and Yvonna S. Lincoln, Eds. (2011). The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 4th revised edition. London and Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Hinnells, John R., Ed. (2005). The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Routledge.

McCutcheon, Russell T. (1997). Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and The Politics of Nostalgia. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary, and John S. Harding. (2009). Introduction to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Routledge.

Stausberg, Michael, and Steven Engler, Eds. (2011). The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge.

Taylor, Mark C., Ed. (1998). Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

David Voas on Quantitative Research

Sociological research has followed two broad paradigms –  qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative studies seek depth, typically based on interviews and observation with a relatively small pool of subjects. Quantitative studies, on the other hand, survey a larger pool – in some cases, such as the UK National Census, practically the entire population of a country –  relying on mass methods such as questionnaires with a limited set of questions and responses. Such data sets allow cross-analyses of large groups in ways that qualitative methods never could. But without the reflexivity and personal relationship of an interviewer, are quantitative methods compromised by the biases in the specific questions asked? 

In our interviews with Callum Brown and Ariella Keysar, the team had a number of issues with the use of qualitative data in religious studies – which you’ll know if you’ve heard our roundtable response recorded at the SOCREL conference this year. So we decided we needed to speak to an acknowledged expert, to lay out the advantages – and deal with the issues – with quantitative data in the study of religions. In his interview, David Voas deals with the criticisms strongly and with good grace, while laying out a compelling case for the place of quantitative research in the contemporary study of religions.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

David Voas is Professor at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex, and was formerly Simon Professor of Population Studies at the University of Manchester. He is the national programme director in Great Britain for the European Values Study and co-director of the British Religion in Numbers project (www.brin.ac.uk), an online centre for British data on religion. He serves on the editorial boards of the British Journal of Sociology and the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and on the council of the British Society for Population Studies.

Among his many publications, some relevant ones are Surveys of behaviour, beliefs and affiliation in Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, ed. J Beckford and NJ Demerath (Sage, 2007); Does religion belong in population studies? in Environment and Planning A 39:5 (2007); and Religious decline in Scotland: New evidence on timing and spatial patterns in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 45:1 (2006).

Ariela Keysar on “What does ‘belief’ mean to Americans?”

‘Belief’ lies at the core of E.B. Tylor’s canonical definition of religion as belief in ‘spiritual beings’. However, in the last decades of the twentieth century the concept became unfashionable in the social sciences, with scholars from all parts of the world denouncing its centrality as a Western, Protestant bias which has limited application to other religions. In recent years, however, there has been something of a resurgence of interest in ‘belief’ and Chris recently attended an international symposium entitled “What does it mean to believe?” at the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK, organised by Dr Abby Day, and the British Council. At this symposium, Professor Ariela Keysar presented a paper entitled “What does ‘belief’ mean to Americans?”, and later on discussed the content of this paper with Chris for this podcast.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

In his keynote address, right at the very start of the symposium, Gordon Lynch raised what he dubbed the erroneous assumption prevalent throughout much of social science that belief is universal, consistent and articulate-able. As Keysar’s data from a number of large-scale, quantitative studies shows, belief changes over time; it is situational, practical, functional, generational; it varies geographically; it varies across and within religious traditions; it has meaning outwith religion, and may be meaningless within; beliefs about the meaning of life may play very little role in daily life.

Listeners may be interested in the following excellent resources mentioned in the podcast which are freely available online:

Dr. Ariela Keysar, a demographer, is Associate Research Professor of Public Policy and Law and the Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. She was a principal investigator of the American Religious Identification Survey 2008, the largest survey of religion in the U.S., covering over 50,000 respondents. She was also a principal investigator of the ISSSC web survey of Indian scientists, which is the first in a series of studies of worldviews and opinions of scientists around the world. Ariela Keysar was the study director of the American Jewish Identity Survey 2001 and the associate director of the Longitudinal Study of Young Adults Raised in Conservative Synagogues 1995-2003.

Dr. Keysar is the co-editor of most recently: Secularism, Women & The State: The Mediterranean World in the 21st Century; also Secularism and Science in the 21st Century and Secularism & Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives as well as co-author of Religion in a Free Market and The Next Generation: Jewish Children and Adolescents.

Listeners may also be interested in our interview with Callum Brown, who is also looking at large-scale surveys, and our roundtable discussion on the issue of using such surveys for research purposes.

Historical Approaches to (Losing) Religion

How can we use historical approaches in the study of religion? More specifically, can we use historical approaches to understand why people are losing it? Professor Callum Brown tells us why historical approaches have much to tell us about religious change.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Callum Brown is Professor of Religious and Cultural History at the University of Dundee. He is a social and cultural historian with special research interests in religion and secularisation in the post 1750 period – especially in the 20th and 21st centuries – mostly in Scotland and Britain, but also Canada, USA and Ireland.

He is currently involved in the project A Social and Cultural History of Modern Humanism, covering Scotland, UK, Ireland, Canada and USA and using especially oral history focusing on the social and cultural origins of individuals’ humanism, looking at issues like family background, religious experiences, and cultural alignments. He is also about to publish Religion and the Demographic Revolution: Women and Secularisation in Canada, Ireland, UK and USA since the 1960s (London, Boydell & Brewer), which looks at demographic behaviour in the North Atlantic world, and the correlations between gender change, the sexual revolution, changes in patterns of marriage and cohabitation, and changes in religious ritual (such as religious solemnisation of marriage, baptism and funeral rites), and incorporates considerable statistical research. 

You may also be interested in our recent interview with Professor Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation Thesis, and Bjoern Mastiaux’s essay on the same topic.

For an interesting response essay to this podcast, please see Tim Hutchings’ A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion. For a more ‘informal’ response, you can listen to our roundtable discussion session on the question Can We Trust the Social Sciences?.

Podcasts

Surveying the Sacred and Secular

The RSP’s interview with Darren Sherkat arrives at a time when research on religion has caught a bit of the media spotlight. Both The Atlantic and Religion Dispatches recently touched on issues with surveys in their reviews of Robert Wuthnow’s new book, Inventing American Religion. In this book, Wuthnow argues that the turn toward survey research shaped our perceptions of “American” religion by producing some stark generalizations, because religious experiences are simply too complex to reduce to national trends captured by survey questions alone (2015:13). I enjoyed the RSP’s interview in light of these challenges because Sherkat reminds us what goes into good polling, why we still do it, and what important lessons it can provide for both social scientists studying religion and the broader public.

What goes into good survey research?

Sherkat and Wuthnow do agree on some major points. We should ask for fewer, larger, and higher quality survey studies rather than just polling willy-nilly. My dissertation research looks at the political impact of the growing non-religious population in the United States, and so I spend a lot of time between surveys on both religion and politics, which face their own challenges during this pre-election season.

Part of the reason polling gets a bad rap is the valid criticism that survey questions cannot capture the nuances of respondents’ beliefs and values, and they are therefore not a good representation of respondents’ religious lives. Fair enough, and sociological research has long challenged the idea that public opinion is good at reflecting the reality of respondents’ conscious thoughts and beliefs. Sherkat gets at this point when he highlights the differences between identities and identifications—a gap between how people think about their religious experiences and whether they affiliate with institutions or established systems of belief. Rather than claim they can capture the nuances of identity, a lot of research thinks about public opinion as a way to capture bigger cultural styles using a “dual process” theory of cognition. This means it is less interested in figuring out what groups of people consciously believe, think about, or talk about. Instead, this work focuses on finding patterns in how people make quick judgements. With a good representative sample, we can learn about how religion shapes the way people answer new questions, rather than what they believe about the issues alone.

Why does that matter?

As Sherkat discusses in this interview, “nones” make up about 20% of the American population. This group makes a great case study for why survey work still matters despite its challenges. Researchers in my field have done a lot of excellent qualitative work looking at non-religious people in the United States. They find that non-religious experiences are just as complex and diverse as religious experiences. We have spiritual but not religious folks, atheists, agnostics, deists, brights, “nothing in particulars”, post-religious people, six kinds of atheism, four ways of talking about the secular, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Even if the “nones” feel a common affinity toward one another for breaking from religious affiliation, underneath the surface they do not agree on much. From the perspective of this qualitative work, this 20% of the U.S. population is not homogeneous; it has substantial ideological and philosophical diversity.

As Sherkat points out in the interview, however, ethnographic research alone can also skew our picture of what is going on if the sub-groups of interest are quite small. This is not at all to say studying a small group is not important, only that we have to remember to step back and synthesize those lived experiences with a larger structural picture. Survey research so far shows us that Americans who disaffiliate from religion often share one particular cultural style: a preference for personal autonomy over received authority (Hout and Fischer 2014). In their new book, American Secularism, Baker and Smith (2015:92) show that atheists, agnostics, and unaffiliated believers have a variety of personal spiritual practices, but they also share a “relatively uniform disengagement from public religion.” When we design survey questions from the ground up based on qualitative findings, as Marcus Mann (2015) did in his study of political and communal motivations for joining local and national atheist groups, we can test whether those findings hold for a range of people and represent a distinct cultural pattern. 20% of the U.S. population with a unique style of evaluating political information could have a huge impact, but we still need quality survey research to test whether these patterns exist and what they do.

What should we do?

One interpretation of Wuthnow’s valid critique of surveys is that our reliance on polling marginalizes the most meaningful religious experiences. Emma Green, writing in The Atlantic , provides the following take on Wuthnow’s work:

Polling has become the only polite language for talking about religious experience in public life…If you mourn anything, mourn the meaningful Grappling With Existence that has to happen in private spaces, rather than public ones, an experience that’s not well-understood or often taken seriously.

Sherkat’s interview reminds us that a lot of the polls facing this criticism are also not ideal sources for scientific research, and survey work is still an important way to understand the American (non)religious experience. To steal a line from my advisor, for each person “grappling with existence” there’s another making a grocery list in church. If big survey research alone often misses the former, sifting for the interesting personal story alone can risk missing the later. Synthesizing both lets us clearly define what parts of religiosity we want to measure, such as whether we are interested in atheism as non-belief or a label with which respondents identify. This often means going back to the drawing board and critiquing long-standing survey questions, but if we put our efforts into good design grounded in testing the findings from qualitative researchers, we stand to gain a lot more than we do by turning away from surveys altogether.

For work on cultural styles, (non)religion, and public opinion, see:

Baker, Joseph O. and Buster G. Smith. 2015. American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems. New York: NYU Press.

Blankholm, Joseph. 2014. “The Political Advantages of a Polysemous Secular.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53(4):775–90.

Edgell, Penny. 2012. “A Cultural Sociology of Religion: New Directions.” Annual Review of Sociology 38(1):247–65.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2001. “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.” Psychological Review 108(4):814–34.

Hout, Michael and Claude Fischer. 2014. “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987-2012.” Sociological Science 1:423–47.

Hout, Michael and Claude S. Fischer. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67(2):165–90.

Mann, Marcus. 2015. “Triangle Atheists: Stigma, Identity, and Community Among Atheists in North Carolina’s Triangle Region.” Secularism and Nonreligion, 4(11): 1–12 http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/snr.bd

Perrin, Andrew J. and Katherine McFarland. 2011. “Social Theory and Public Opinion.” Annual Review of Sociology 37(1):87–107.

Perrin, Andrew J., J. Micah Roos, and Gordon W. Gauchat. 2014. “From Coalition to Constraint: Modes of Thought in Contemporary American Conservatism.” Sociological Forum 29(2):285–300.

Silver, Christopher F., Thomas J. Coleman III, Ralph W. Hood Jr, and Jenny M. Holcombe. 2014. “The Six Types of Nonbelief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 17(10):990–1001.

Vaisey, Stephen. 2009. “Motivation and Justification: A Dual‐Process Model of Culture in Action.” American Journal of Sociology 114(6):1675–1715.

Experiences Deemed Religious from Micro and Qualitative to Macro and Quantitative

Overview

This joint Religious Studies Project/SSSR session was a symposium that included four presentations, all focused on some variation on the topic of “religious experiences,” a category better described as experiences deemed religious (EDRs; Taves, 2009). Beyond that idea in the symposium summary, the only similarity among the presentations was that that they were almost purely descriptive. There was little if any theoretical synthesis, either psychologically or sociologically, to help the audience gain a conceptual understanding of the processes mediating these or other EDRs.

The combined result of the four presentations is certainly positive for purposes of illustrating ways that qualitative or quantitative research on EDRs can be executed. Three of the four presentations also gave the viewer-listener a relatively vivid picture of the questions posed, the participants involved, and what was actually learned from the studies. This is, of course, all good. The downside, however, which is not at all unusual for symposia of this sort, was that the methods and findings were presented and the presentation then stopped, usually for reasons of time.

As an observer-listener I was left with an illuminating picture of what the researchers were trying to get at and what they found. However, my mind strained at the theoretical emptiness left in their wake – my intellectual need to dig deeper and understand why the findings were what they were. That, of course, is the much more difficult task.

Presentations Snapshot

A brief summary of the presentations looks like this:

(1) In Study 1, seven people were interviewed who are active in Christian snake-handling sects in the rural Southern U.S. states. Their beliefs and practices are derived from a literal application of the “five signs” said to follow believers as listed in the last chapter of the Gospel of Mark. The two life-threatening signs are handling poisonous snakes and drinking deadly poison; Each participant had done both. The interviews focused on the phenomenology of drinking strychnine. In order to confirm its toxicity, an independent lab examined a sample of the liquid used; it was confirmed lethal. Reported effects included a powerful sense of awe, “victory,” a “rush” or mental “high,” and sensations such as peace, joy, satisfaction, and spiritual perfection.

(2) In Study 2, several modern Christian churches were observed, and their clergy interviewed, about the role of popular secular and religious music in worship services. The interviews showed that, for these ministers and worshipers, secular music is thought to be “more real” in helping people confront their own shortcomings. It is included such services in order to facilitate an internal sense of honesty, while comfort and hope are subsequently provided by religious music and other non-musical aspects of the service.

(3) Study 3 focused on natural disaster relief and symptoms of PTSD, as approached by clergy and others in Japan, the U.S., and the Philippines. Clergy of various religions, including Christians and Buddhists, completed questionnaires that asked, for instance, how they perceived disasters, whether they had an obligation to help victims or pray with victims, whether they thought disasters were God’s will, if they see signs of PTSD or lesser symptoms in those they help. The results generally affirmed the clergy’s motivation to help, which seem to help decrease the suffering of the victims.

(4) In Study 4, although research was referred to, the main argument was that researchers should get away from doing research only within their narrow disciplinary boundaries. It was proposed that we should instead aim to “highlight the lines of continuity” between disciplines through research that, for example, combines social and natural scientific methods, using methods that exploit the potentials for cooperative effort between fields.

Qualitative and Quantitative Methods

To be fair, the four presentations were so varied that I would not expect to be able to view them, with much accuracy, through only one theoretical or methodological lens. Study 1 was a content analysis of seven interviews aimed at creating a clear, accurate picture of the mental experiences of people that had drunk a poison. With the research goal thus defined and the available N so small, an in-depth interview method is the way to go. Qualitative methodologies of this sort yield a vividness and completeness in the data that physiological recordings cannot produce.

Does this mean that qualitative research is better than quantitative research? No. Nor does it mean it is worse. It means that for a research question posed as this one was, a qualitative method is better equipped to answer it with data of the form most meaningful to the question. Qualitative methods, such as the use of questionnaires in Study 3, are desirable when the research intent is to go deeply into single cases and yield the most complete graphic possible of what is being examined, whether the case is an individual human, as occurs in psychological research, or an individual village, as in anthropological research. Such methods yield a form of data that are sometimes referred to as “deeper” and “richer.” That is their gift and their strength. Vivid pictures of the phenomenology of EDRs can be painted with such methods.

With the strength of a research method, however, there is a corresponding weakness. And these weaknesses turn out to be overcome by the strengths of other, “opposite” kinds of methods. In the case of the small-N phenomenological interview methods used in Study 1, weaknesses include difficulties in going beyond describing the subjects’ experiences to test theoretical predictions about what might happen mentally when someone drinks poison (or does anything else), why the experience might be interpreted in one way or another by the individual, ways people might respond when the experience is discrepant from that which was anticipated, and so forth. Answers to questions phrased in these ways are more amenable to quantitative approaches that allow for testing hypotheses derived from theories about the processes operating inside human minds, such as, the processes that mediate interpretations and responses to unusual mental events, and the consideration their social and physical contexts. Nonetheless, the theoretical gains of using quantitative methods not infrequently come with a loss of the benefits of qualitative methods.

Multilevel Interdisciplinary Paradigm

What is the solution? The main argument of Study 4 was that for comprehensive knowledge to emerge, we must do more research that combines approaches from different disciplines. I have written extensively about this approach, which I call the multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm (MIP; Paloutzian & Park, 2013; Park & Paloutzian, 2013). It involves researchers from different disciplines not just telling others about their research, but engaging in genuine collaborative work around common questions that cannot be answered by one discipline alone. I think future research within the MIP will demonstrate its capability to accomplish the goals of both qualitative and quantitative research, both within disciplines and across their borders.

References

Paloutzian, R. F., & Park, C. L. (2013). Recent progress and core issues in the science of the psychology of religion and spirituality. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2nd ed. (pp. 3-22). New York: Guilford.

Park, C. L., & Paloutzian, R. F. (2013). Directions for the future of the psychology of religion and spirituality: Research advances in methodology and meaning systems. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2nd ed. (pp. 651-665). New York: Guilford.

Taves, A. (2009). Religious experience reconsidered: A building block approach to the study of religion and other special things. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mormonism, Growth and Decline

Mormonism – or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) – exploded onto the scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the United States of America, and has courted controversy ever since. From the recent upsurge in worldwide visibility of Mormonism due to the widespread attention given to the religious identity of Mitt Romney (the Republican Candidate in the 2012 US Presidential elections), to the huge success of the Southpark creators’ hit musical The Book of Mormon, there is no shortage of ill-informed opinion surrounding this group. Unsurprisingly, the academic study of religion has its own questions about Mormonism: can it be described as a New Religious Movement? Is there a unified phenomenon which can be classified as Mormonism? Is Mormonism to be considered as a form of Christianity? This week, Chris is joined by Ryan Cragun – Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida – to discuss not only these conceptual issues, but issues relating specifically to quantitative research, Mormon demographics, and the worldwide growth and decline of the LDS Church.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter.

What numbers should a quantitative scholar use when ‘counting’ Mormonism? Who does the categorization? Is Mormonism outside of the US different? In what ways? And what about Mormonism in the ‘heartland’ of Utah? These are just some of the questions which come up in the interview, and Professor Cragun provides a great introduction not only to Mormonism and quantitative research, but also to Mormon growth and decline in the context of the secularization thesis, and to the intricate relationships and correlations which can be observed between LDS membership and factors such as gender, employment, education, and ethnicity.

A number of papers are referred to in this interview, including Comparing the Geographic Distributions and Growth of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses, The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists, and The Price of Free Inquiry in Mormonism, all of which can be accessed on Ryan’s personal website. Ryan Cragun is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida. He is author and co-author of many peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of Contemporary Relgiion, Sociology of Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and more, and is the co-author (with Rick Phillips) of Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election Year Guide to Mitt Romney’s Religion (2012), and author of the forthcoming What You Don’t Know About Religion (but Should).

This interview was recorded in the business centre at the Lord Elgin Hotel, Ottawa during the Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts Conference. We are grateful to everyone who facilitated the recording in any way.

James R. Lewis

Who joins New Religious Movements?

James R. Lewis was kind enough to have a chat with us at the 2012 EASR conference in Stockholm despite having a sore throat due to a cold. Lewis has been involved in research on new religious movements (NRMs) since the early late 1980s and has both written and edited extensively on the subject. In this episode of the Religious Studies Project, Lewis shares some of his views on the study of NRMs. It seems, claims Lewis, that our current generalizations about who joins such movements is based on outdated statistics. It seems no longer to be the case that it is primarily young people who join NMRs, rather joiners’ age has increased during recent decades. This demonstrates why we need more and better quantitative data. James and Knut also talk a bit about the situation in Norway when it comes to research on NRMs.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

James R. Lewis

James R. Lewis is a associate professor of religious studies at the University of Tromsø. Among Lewis’ latest titles are the monographs Children of Jesus and Mary: The Order of Christ Sophia (2009) and the forthcoming Embracing the Darkness: Modern Satanism (with Asbjørn Dyrendal & Jesper A. Petersen) and Routledge Introduction to New Religious Movements. Among his edited collections are Violence and New Religious Movements (2011) and Handbook of Religious and the Authority of Science (2010, with Olav Hammer). Lewis is also editor of Brill’s Handbooks on Contemporary Religion series. He co-founded the International Society for the Study of New Religions. The full publication list can be found here.

Names, books and other things mentioned in the podcast:

Editors’ Picks 1: Losing Religion

In this, the first of four summer break Editor’s Picks “repodcasts”, Louise Connelly reintroduces Chris’s interview with Callum Brown, first broadcast on 30/4/2012. How can we use historical approaches in the study of religion? More specifically, can we use historical approaches to understand why people are losing it? Professor Callum Brown tells us why historical approaches have much to tell us about religious change.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Should Religious Studies be Multidisciplinary?

Nuancing the Qual-Quan Divide: The Vitality of Research Methods in the Academic Study of Religion

Nuancing the Qual-Quan Divide:The Vitality of Research Methods in the Academic Study of Religion

By Yasaman S. Munro, Wilfrid Laurier University

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 4 July 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with David Voas on Quantitative Research (2 July 2012).

By using “vitality” in the title above, I mean to point to two aspects of the same urgent call. First, I simply mean that research methods are vital to the academic study of religion. As Stausberg and Engler suggest, “it is through methods that data and theory speak to each other and become part of a shared horizon” (2011: 11), and indeed it is still not a platitude to recall that theory, method and data can be considered three sides of that triangle we conjure, whether implicitly or explicitly, whenever we conduct research in this discipline. Second, I mean to claim that the active engagement of students and scholars embedded in the study of religion with research methods contributes to the ongoing vitality of our discipline. Please allow me to elaborate.

In this interview with Professor David Voas—a social scientist in Britain specializing in demography, and a scholar who is deeply involved in quantitative research himself—interviewer David Robertson asks about the oft-cited distinction between quantitative and qualitative research. I’d like to comment on this, specifically on what my own social research methods professor called the “qual-quan” divide. Professor Voas goes so far as to contrast the “qualitative people” to scholars using quantitative methods. Yet, what he does hint at, but has not had a chance to elaborate upon here in this short interview, is that the division between qualitative and quantitative research methods can be quite blurry in practice, and furthermore, they can and often are used in conjunction, as for instance in mixed methods research (Stausberg and Engler 2011: 13). Both Voas and Robertson themselves point to what could arguably be considered qualitative problems inherent in quantitative research designs, namely issues around designing valid questionnaires to administer to an appropriate sample of people in order to address specific research questions. Or, for example, in my own research on domestic health and healing practices among Hindu migrants in Canada, I have found myself asking interviewees what Voas refers to as the “how much, to what extent” sorts of questions that could be classified as quantitative questions.

But, even more significant than recognizing this blurry divide is what I noticed in this podcast to be a tendency not to nuance either qualitative and quantitative research methods. Voas rightly points to the usually forgotten difference between methods of data collection and analysis, considering surveys conducted among individuals or organizations. He also outlines some pros and cons for using primary and secondary data collection and analysis. What seems to be missing here is the acknowledgement that both quantitative and qualitative research often involves far more than simply statistical data gleaned from surveys, or in-person interviews, respectively.

Michael Stausberg and Steven Engler’s recent edited volume is a breath of the proverbial fresh air in this regard. In this pioneering handbook on research methods in the study of religion, the editors and the diverse contributors consider a wide variety of research designs, data analysis and collection strategies. Included are everything from issues in research ethics and hermeneutics to network analysis and material culture. Another recent work, by Hilary Rodrigues and John S. Harding, does address approaches to the study of religion—a subject area for which Walter Capps (1995) deserves a notable mention—and would be more suitable for undergraduate students being introduced to research methods. Those of us immersed in religious studies would benefit from pursuing works like these.

Why are research methods so vital to us? A while ago Russell McCutcheon (1997) called on us to pay more critical attention to theory (and method) in the study of religion. We do have a number of important works dealing with theoretical topics in the study of religion (e.g. Braun and McCutcheon 2000; Hinnells 2005; Taylor 1998), and as Stausberg and Engler have in my opinion rightly claimed, our Method and Theory courses have tended to focus more on theory than on method per se. Furthermore, as Capps among others, has reminded us, “where one stands determines what one sees and what one can know” (1995: 334-5); arguably both our theories and methods are implicated in where we stand. Because our methods, just as it is the case with our theories, play such a vital part in structuring, and arguably even producing, the data we find in our research, when we do not explicitly address our research methods, we are not adequately taking advantage of the resources we have to render high quality research. We could more clearly examine our research questions, our methods for data collection and analysis (beyond simply claiming we are conducting “quantitative” or “qualitative” research), and we could more explicitly employ strategies to establish our project’s methodological credibility, among other things. We are each encouraged to immerse ourselves in these sorts of things not only for the sake of our own ongoing research but because doing so will benefit the students and colleagues whose research we continue to help foster together.

Given the interviewee’s background, the interview tends to focus on issues that are usually important to scholars practicing the sociology of religion, issues such as how to measure the degree of religiosity of adherents, and how demographic factors are complicit in these processes. The interview could therefore more accurately be titled “Quantitative Research in the Sociology of Religion in Europe and the United States.” What is important to note here is that Voas’ perspectives on the value of quantitative research, involving particular data collection and analysis strategies (especially those involving large-scale surveys), while valuable, do stem from his adherence to the particular research questions of concern to him. What listeners are therefore exposed to here does not by any means exhaust the possibilities for research designs available to other kinds of scholars carrying out other kinds of research in our multi-faceted discipline.

At the end of the interview, Voas and Robertson encourage young scholars to engage with quantitative research methods. While I wholeheartedly support their inviting sentiments, I suggest it is vital for students and scholars of religion to pay closer attention to research methods more generally. As I have heard often enough in multiple places, the research questions are what ultimately drive the method, and therefore quantitative research designs may not be suitable for all projects. In my own doctoral research, for example, I have found the use of semi-structured interviews in domestic spaces and photography of household medical items indispensable for addressing my particular research questions.

It was a pleasure listening to what I hope to be the first of several more podcasts addressing the richly various aspects of research methods in our discipline. The interview does provide listeners with a good introduction to some important topics, such as validity, sampling, and generalizability. Still, given that research methods courses are a long way from being abundantly accessible to students in the discipline, students (and scholars) of religious studies would benefit from continually engaging with some of the established and emerging literature on research design and methodology so they can further nuance their understandings (e.g. Creswell 2009; Bryman, Teevan and Bell 2009; Berg 2007; Denzin and Lincoln 2011). I have been fortunate in that at my academic institution we have had a “Fieldworkers’ Group” meeting at least once a term for several years to discuss issues we have collectively experienced in mostly anthropological fieldwork. Indeed, beyond classroom and textbook, we all might find it helpful to engage more in occasional roundtables at conferences or at our institutions to discuss best practices in our ongoing adventures with research methods.

I therefore join Stausberg and Engler among others in inviting students and scholars in our discipline to open the lines of dialogue and debate on the vital topic of research methods in the academic study of religion, otherwise our research triangles run the risk of looking a bit more like boomerangs.

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:

Yasaman S. Munro is a PhD candidate in the joint Wilfrid Laurier University-University of Waterloo Religious Diversity in North America doctoral program. Her doctoral research focuses on relational and material dimensions of Āyurveda and associated South Asian medical modalities unfolding in the domestic spaces of Hindu migrants in the Waterloo Region of Canada. In particular, she is tracing how the health and healing ideas and practices manifesting in these spaces are linked to those elsewhere and at other times, and what these can tell us about people’s religious and other social identities. More broadly, Yasaman’s work examines intersections between what we call “religion” and “health” from a multidisciplinary approach.

References:

Berg, Bruce L. (2007). Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences, Sixth Edition. Long Beach: California State University.

Braun, Willi, and Russell McCutcheon, Eds. (2000). Guide to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Cassell.

Bryman, Alan, James J. Teevan and Edward Bell. (2009). Social Research Methods, Second Canadian Edition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Capps, Walter H. (1995). Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Creswell, John W. (2009). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Denzin, Norman K., and Yvonna S. Lincoln, Eds. (2011). The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 4th revised edition. London and Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Hinnells, John R., Ed. (2005). The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Routledge.

McCutcheon, Russell T. (1997). Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and The Politics of Nostalgia. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary, and John S. Harding. (2009). Introduction to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Routledge.

Stausberg, Michael, and Steven Engler, Eds. (2011). The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge.

Taylor, Mark C., Ed. (1998). Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

David Voas on Quantitative Research

Sociological research has followed two broad paradigms –  qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative studies seek depth, typically based on interviews and observation with a relatively small pool of subjects. Quantitative studies, on the other hand, survey a larger pool – in some cases, such as the UK National Census, practically the entire population of a country –  relying on mass methods such as questionnaires with a limited set of questions and responses. Such data sets allow cross-analyses of large groups in ways that qualitative methods never could. But without the reflexivity and personal relationship of an interviewer, are quantitative methods compromised by the biases in the specific questions asked? 

In our interviews with Callum Brown and Ariella Keysar, the team had a number of issues with the use of qualitative data in religious studies – which you’ll know if you’ve heard our roundtable response recorded at the SOCREL conference this year. So we decided we needed to speak to an acknowledged expert, to lay out the advantages – and deal with the issues – with quantitative data in the study of religions. In his interview, David Voas deals with the criticisms strongly and with good grace, while laying out a compelling case for the place of quantitative research in the contemporary study of religions.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

David Voas is Professor at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex, and was formerly Simon Professor of Population Studies at the University of Manchester. He is the national programme director in Great Britain for the European Values Study and co-director of the British Religion in Numbers project (www.brin.ac.uk), an online centre for British data on religion. He serves on the editorial boards of the British Journal of Sociology and the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and on the council of the British Society for Population Studies.

Among his many publications, some relevant ones are Surveys of behaviour, beliefs and affiliation in Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, ed. J Beckford and NJ Demerath (Sage, 2007); Does religion belong in population studies? in Environment and Planning A 39:5 (2007); and Religious decline in Scotland: New evidence on timing and spatial patterns in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 45:1 (2006).

Ariela Keysar on “What does ‘belief’ mean to Americans?”

‘Belief’ lies at the core of E.B. Tylor’s canonical definition of religion as belief in ‘spiritual beings’. However, in the last decades of the twentieth century the concept became unfashionable in the social sciences, with scholars from all parts of the world denouncing its centrality as a Western, Protestant bias which has limited application to other religions. In recent years, however, there has been something of a resurgence of interest in ‘belief’ and Chris recently attended an international symposium entitled “What does it mean to believe?” at the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK, organised by Dr Abby Day, and the British Council. At this symposium, Professor Ariela Keysar presented a paper entitled “What does ‘belief’ mean to Americans?”, and later on discussed the content of this paper with Chris for this podcast.

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In his keynote address, right at the very start of the symposium, Gordon Lynch raised what he dubbed the erroneous assumption prevalent throughout much of social science that belief is universal, consistent and articulate-able. As Keysar’s data from a number of large-scale, quantitative studies shows, belief changes over time; it is situational, practical, functional, generational; it varies geographically; it varies across and within religious traditions; it has meaning outwith religion, and may be meaningless within; beliefs about the meaning of life may play very little role in daily life.

Listeners may be interested in the following excellent resources mentioned in the podcast which are freely available online:

Dr. Ariela Keysar, a demographer, is Associate Research Professor of Public Policy and Law and the Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. She was a principal investigator of the American Religious Identification Survey 2008, the largest survey of religion in the U.S., covering over 50,000 respondents. She was also a principal investigator of the ISSSC web survey of Indian scientists, which is the first in a series of studies of worldviews and opinions of scientists around the world. Ariela Keysar was the study director of the American Jewish Identity Survey 2001 and the associate director of the Longitudinal Study of Young Adults Raised in Conservative Synagogues 1995-2003.

Dr. Keysar is the co-editor of most recently: Secularism, Women & The State: The Mediterranean World in the 21st Century; also Secularism and Science in the 21st Century and Secularism & Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives as well as co-author of Religion in a Free Market and The Next Generation: Jewish Children and Adolescents.

Listeners may also be interested in our interview with Callum Brown, who is also looking at large-scale surveys, and our roundtable discussion on the issue of using such surveys for research purposes.

Historical Approaches to (Losing) Religion

How can we use historical approaches in the study of religion? More specifically, can we use historical approaches to understand why people are losing it? Professor Callum Brown tells us why historical approaches have much to tell us about religious change.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Callum Brown is Professor of Religious and Cultural History at the University of Dundee. He is a social and cultural historian with special research interests in religion and secularisation in the post 1750 period – especially in the 20th and 21st centuries – mostly in Scotland and Britain, but also Canada, USA and Ireland.

He is currently involved in the project A Social and Cultural History of Modern Humanism, covering Scotland, UK, Ireland, Canada and USA and using especially oral history focusing on the social and cultural origins of individuals’ humanism, looking at issues like family background, religious experiences, and cultural alignments. He is also about to publish Religion and the Demographic Revolution: Women and Secularisation in Canada, Ireland, UK and USA since the 1960s (London, Boydell & Brewer), which looks at demographic behaviour in the North Atlantic world, and the correlations between gender change, the sexual revolution, changes in patterns of marriage and cohabitation, and changes in religious ritual (such as religious solemnisation of marriage, baptism and funeral rites), and incorporates considerable statistical research. 

You may also be interested in our recent interview with Professor Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation Thesis, and Bjoern Mastiaux’s essay on the same topic.

For an interesting response essay to this podcast, please see Tim Hutchings’ A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion. For a more ‘informal’ response, you can listen to our roundtable discussion session on the question Can We Trust the Social Sciences?.