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.

About this episode

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).

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

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,

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