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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).

What to do with Davie’s ‘Vicarious Religion’?

 

Like with many of Grace Davie’s conceptualizations, the notion of “vicarious religion” is destined to garner much attention and debate. I must admit that when I first read about it, I rolled my eyes without really knowing why. Perhaps I predicted that the same puddle of ink would be spilt in debating the finer points of what was meant and what was actually meant by the new concept. The author would churn out countless articles explaining his or her new framework, which would invite responses from scholars pointing out missteps, which would in turn invite rejoinders from the author insisting that they had been misunderstood. This is how academia tends to work, and it may be why the general public is often vicariously exhausted by our efforts.

Academic self-deprecation aside, I was fascinated by the Religious Studies Project’s interview with Grace Davie. While many different topics are covered in the podcast, in the space I have available I want to focus particularly on her notion of vicarious religion, and examine some of the critique it has spawned, and explore the ways it has been useful for scholars in the sociology of religion.

Davie has in various places defined vicarious religion as “the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number, who (implicitly at least) not only understand, but, quite clearly, approve of what the minority is doing” (Davie 2007, 22). In the podcast, she notes that while church structures are no longer able to “discipline the behavior and beliefs” of Europeans, there is still some support for their “public utility.” As she points out, although relatively few people are attending these churches, “there is still a certain expectation that they would do things on behalf of a wide number of people when the need arises…For example, if you or I approached the clergy for a funeral of a family member, and that funeral was denied, we would feel somehow that the church had not done what it was there to do.” It is in a similar light that some scholars have seen religion as an “institution of oughts” (Christiano et al. 2008, 43).

According to Davie (2006, 25) religion can operate vicariously in several ways, from church leaders performing rituals and believing on behalf of others to embodying moral codes and offering a space for public debate. Interestingly, if we take seriously Jose Casanova’s (1994) argument that the secularization thesis consists of three different propositions – religious decline, differentiation, and privatization – Davie’s notion of vicarious religion does not challenge any one of them. Indeed, vicarious religion seems to be a theory that takes the differentiation thesis for granted when attempting to explain how religion (at least in Great Britain and perhaps Europe) functions in society. Even individuals vicariously practicing religion are acknowledging, when practicing it in such a way, that society is differentiated and the sphere of religion may have “utility” only for certain purposes.

One of the main critiques of the vicarious religion thesis was put forth by Steve Bruce and David Voas (2010). As they (2010, 245) point out, “Vicarious religion clearly exists; our objection is that it seems to be the exception in the contemporary world, while Davie claims that it is the rule in Europe.” To be fair, Davie suggests nothing of the sort. In fact, she (2010) has been quite clear that “vicarious religion”, as well as “believing without belonging” before it, should be viewed as tools in the sociologist of religion’s toolbox. They cannot be used to extract every nail or tighten every screw, but will likely be useful for some projects. In his most recent book, Bruce (2011, vi) expresses annoyance at scholars who “present a small case study as a rebuttal of a story about large-scale social change.” However, in his disagreement with Davie, it is Bruce who has perceived a large-scale argument when what is presented is “one factor among many in the continuing re-adjustment of religious life in modern Europe” (Davie 2010, 264).

Another major point of disagreement inevitably seems to lie with their differing definitions of religion. While Bruce begins his most recent book by arguing that “social scientists spend far too much time quibbling over words” – a statement that I tend to agree with – it is precisely because Bruce and Davie have different starting points that disagreement immediately follows. For Bruce (2011, 1), functional definitions of religion, those examining “the purposes it serves or the needs it meets” tend to “assume what ought to be demonstrated.” However, Davie is very much working from a functional perspective. Bruce (2011, 1) settles instead for a substantive definition “as beliefs, actions, and institutions based on the existence of supernatural entities with powers of agency or impersonal processes possessed of moral purpose that set the conditions of, or intervene in, human affairs.” Indeed, problems arising from these differing perspectives have “been there continuously, without those who hold to a substantive – or substantial – definition (associated with the substance of belief) and those who favour a functional one (which takes account of the functions of religion in social life) being able to agree and so transcend or resolve the difficulty” (Hervieu-Leger 2000, 32).

In seeing how the vicarious religion thesis has recently been operationalized, let us spend some time on the work of Peter Hemming (2011). Hemming finds some use for the concept in his study of religion and spirituality in a community primary school and a voluntary aided Roman Catholic primary school in the north of England. Some of the parents he interviewed were reliant on their children’s schools to teach and talk about religion. As Hemming (2011, 1072) writes, “Many of the comments were linked to the legacy of past practices and parents’ own schooling memories and experiences.” This is in line with Davie’s argument that the “old residual expectations are implicitly if not explicitly there” as well as Hervieu-Leger’s (2000) view of religion as a “chain of memory.” Hemming (2011, 1073) notes that there was a desire on the part of some parents for schools to “do religion” on their behalf.

A similarly interesting case was presented by Peter Berger when discussing the church tax system in Germany. In Germany, Berger argues, there are no longer any state churches, but religious institutions continue to benefit from certain legal privileges. The “church tax” – which is about eight or nine percent of people’s income – is collected by the state and given to the churches. As Christina Sticht (2004) has noted, many citizens are leaving the church partly because they cannot afford or no longer want to pay this fairly hefty tax (see also Barker 2004). As Berger (2005, 116) quite surprisingly points out:

An individual who does not want to pay this tax can simply declare himself to be religiously unaffiliated (konfessionslos) and thus instantly save quite a bit of money. What is surprising is how many – indeed the majority at least in the western part of the country – have not done it. When asked why, they give different answers – because they might need the church at some point in their lives, because they want the church to give moral guidance for their children, because they see the church as important for the moral fabric of society. Davie has coined another apt term for this phenomenon – ‘vicarious religion’.

As is evident, then, the notion of vicarious religion can indeed be a useful conceptual tool for shedding light on some religious activities. Davie, however, suggests that this is likely not going to survive into the next generation. She imagines vicarious religion as a kind of religio-cultural residue that coats the consciousness of older generations. It is this coating that enables traditional cultural as well as religious structures to have their affective effect. According to Davie, subsequent generations whose cultural context is more varied may find less significance in their ancestral traditions and, in many ways, will continue what Roof (1999, 171) has called a process of “retraditionalizing” were new ways of being may be infused with significance and perhaps even timelessness. As these changes continue, newer and more precise tools will be required to adequately understand the contemporary religious landscape.

References

Barker, Christine. 2004. “Church and State: Lessons from Germany.” The Political Quarterly. (75.2): 168-176.

Berger, Peter L. 2005. “Religion and the West.” The National Interest. (Summer): 112-119.

Bruce, Steve. 2011. Secularization: In Defense of an Unfashionable Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bruce, Steve and David Voas. 2010. “Vicarious Religion: An Examination and Critique. Journal of Contemporary Religion. (25.2): 243-259.

Casanova, Jose. 1994. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Christiano, Kevin J., William H. Swatos Jr., and Peter Kivisto. 2008. Sociology of Religion: Contemporary Developments. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Davie, Grace. 2006. “Is Europe an Exceptional Case?” The Hedgehog Review (Spring and Summer): 23-34.

Davie, Grace. 2007. “Vicarious Religion: A Methodological Challenge.” In Nancy T. Ammerman, ed. Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, pp. 21-35. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davie, Grace. 2010. “Vicarious Religion: A Response.” Journal of Contemporary Religion. (25.2): 261-266.

Hemming, Peter. 2011. “The Place of Religion in Public Life: School Ethos as a Lens on Society.” Sociology. (45.6): 1061-1077.

Hervieu-Leger, Daniele. 2000. Religion as a Chain of Memory. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Roof, Wade Clark. 1999. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sticht, Christina. 2004. “The Role of the Churches in Germany.” May. Die Rolle Der Kirchen in Deutschland. Accessed February 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.goethe.de/ges/phi/dos/rkd/en2012816.htm

Podcasts

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).

What to do with Davie’s ‘Vicarious Religion’?

 

Like with many of Grace Davie’s conceptualizations, the notion of “vicarious religion” is destined to garner much attention and debate. I must admit that when I first read about it, I rolled my eyes without really knowing why. Perhaps I predicted that the same puddle of ink would be spilt in debating the finer points of what was meant and what was actually meant by the new concept. The author would churn out countless articles explaining his or her new framework, which would invite responses from scholars pointing out missteps, which would in turn invite rejoinders from the author insisting that they had been misunderstood. This is how academia tends to work, and it may be why the general public is often vicariously exhausted by our efforts.

Academic self-deprecation aside, I was fascinated by the Religious Studies Project’s interview with Grace Davie. While many different topics are covered in the podcast, in the space I have available I want to focus particularly on her notion of vicarious religion, and examine some of the critique it has spawned, and explore the ways it has been useful for scholars in the sociology of religion.

Davie has in various places defined vicarious religion as “the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number, who (implicitly at least) not only understand, but, quite clearly, approve of what the minority is doing” (Davie 2007, 22). In the podcast, she notes that while church structures are no longer able to “discipline the behavior and beliefs” of Europeans, there is still some support for their “public utility.” As she points out, although relatively few people are attending these churches, “there is still a certain expectation that they would do things on behalf of a wide number of people when the need arises…For example, if you or I approached the clergy for a funeral of a family member, and that funeral was denied, we would feel somehow that the church had not done what it was there to do.” It is in a similar light that some scholars have seen religion as an “institution of oughts” (Christiano et al. 2008, 43).

According to Davie (2006, 25) religion can operate vicariously in several ways, from church leaders performing rituals and believing on behalf of others to embodying moral codes and offering a space for public debate. Interestingly, if we take seriously Jose Casanova’s (1994) argument that the secularization thesis consists of three different propositions – religious decline, differentiation, and privatization – Davie’s notion of vicarious religion does not challenge any one of them. Indeed, vicarious religion seems to be a theory that takes the differentiation thesis for granted when attempting to explain how religion (at least in Great Britain and perhaps Europe) functions in society. Even individuals vicariously practicing religion are acknowledging, when practicing it in such a way, that society is differentiated and the sphere of religion may have “utility” only for certain purposes.

One of the main critiques of the vicarious religion thesis was put forth by Steve Bruce and David Voas (2010). As they (2010, 245) point out, “Vicarious religion clearly exists; our objection is that it seems to be the exception in the contemporary world, while Davie claims that it is the rule in Europe.” To be fair, Davie suggests nothing of the sort. In fact, she (2010) has been quite clear that “vicarious religion”, as well as “believing without belonging” before it, should be viewed as tools in the sociologist of religion’s toolbox. They cannot be used to extract every nail or tighten every screw, but will likely be useful for some projects. In his most recent book, Bruce (2011, vi) expresses annoyance at scholars who “present a small case study as a rebuttal of a story about large-scale social change.” However, in his disagreement with Davie, it is Bruce who has perceived a large-scale argument when what is presented is “one factor among many in the continuing re-adjustment of religious life in modern Europe” (Davie 2010, 264).

Another major point of disagreement inevitably seems to lie with their differing definitions of religion. While Bruce begins his most recent book by arguing that “social scientists spend far too much time quibbling over words” – a statement that I tend to agree with – it is precisely because Bruce and Davie have different starting points that disagreement immediately follows. For Bruce (2011, 1), functional definitions of religion, those examining “the purposes it serves or the needs it meets” tend to “assume what ought to be demonstrated.” However, Davie is very much working from a functional perspective. Bruce (2011, 1) settles instead for a substantive definition “as beliefs, actions, and institutions based on the existence of supernatural entities with powers of agency or impersonal processes possessed of moral purpose that set the conditions of, or intervene in, human affairs.” Indeed, problems arising from these differing perspectives have “been there continuously, without those who hold to a substantive – or substantial – definition (associated with the substance of belief) and those who favour a functional one (which takes account of the functions of religion in social life) being able to agree and so transcend or resolve the difficulty” (Hervieu-Leger 2000, 32).

In seeing how the vicarious religion thesis has recently been operationalized, let us spend some time on the work of Peter Hemming (2011). Hemming finds some use for the concept in his study of religion and spirituality in a community primary school and a voluntary aided Roman Catholic primary school in the north of England. Some of the parents he interviewed were reliant on their children’s schools to teach and talk about religion. As Hemming (2011, 1072) writes, “Many of the comments were linked to the legacy of past practices and parents’ own schooling memories and experiences.” This is in line with Davie’s argument that the “old residual expectations are implicitly if not explicitly there” as well as Hervieu-Leger’s (2000) view of religion as a “chain of memory.” Hemming (2011, 1073) notes that there was a desire on the part of some parents for schools to “do religion” on their behalf.

A similarly interesting case was presented by Peter Berger when discussing the church tax system in Germany. In Germany, Berger argues, there are no longer any state churches, but religious institutions continue to benefit from certain legal privileges. The “church tax” – which is about eight or nine percent of people’s income – is collected by the state and given to the churches. As Christina Sticht (2004) has noted, many citizens are leaving the church partly because they cannot afford or no longer want to pay this fairly hefty tax (see also Barker 2004). As Berger (2005, 116) quite surprisingly points out:

An individual who does not want to pay this tax can simply declare himself to be religiously unaffiliated (konfessionslos) and thus instantly save quite a bit of money. What is surprising is how many – indeed the majority at least in the western part of the country – have not done it. When asked why, they give different answers – because they might need the church at some point in their lives, because they want the church to give moral guidance for their children, because they see the church as important for the moral fabric of society. Davie has coined another apt term for this phenomenon – ‘vicarious religion’.

As is evident, then, the notion of vicarious religion can indeed be a useful conceptual tool for shedding light on some religious activities. Davie, however, suggests that this is likely not going to survive into the next generation. She imagines vicarious religion as a kind of religio-cultural residue that coats the consciousness of older generations. It is this coating that enables traditional cultural as well as religious structures to have their affective effect. According to Davie, subsequent generations whose cultural context is more varied may find less significance in their ancestral traditions and, in many ways, will continue what Roof (1999, 171) has called a process of “retraditionalizing” were new ways of being may be infused with significance and perhaps even timelessness. As these changes continue, newer and more precise tools will be required to adequately understand the contemporary religious landscape.

References

Barker, Christine. 2004. “Church and State: Lessons from Germany.” The Political Quarterly. (75.2): 168-176.

Berger, Peter L. 2005. “Religion and the West.” The National Interest. (Summer): 112-119.

Bruce, Steve. 2011. Secularization: In Defense of an Unfashionable Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bruce, Steve and David Voas. 2010. “Vicarious Religion: An Examination and Critique. Journal of Contemporary Religion. (25.2): 243-259.

Casanova, Jose. 1994. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Christiano, Kevin J., William H. Swatos Jr., and Peter Kivisto. 2008. Sociology of Religion: Contemporary Developments. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Davie, Grace. 2006. “Is Europe an Exceptional Case?” The Hedgehog Review (Spring and Summer): 23-34.

Davie, Grace. 2007. “Vicarious Religion: A Methodological Challenge.” In Nancy T. Ammerman, ed. Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, pp. 21-35. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davie, Grace. 2010. “Vicarious Religion: A Response.” Journal of Contemporary Religion. (25.2): 261-266.

Hemming, Peter. 2011. “The Place of Religion in Public Life: School Ethos as a Lens on Society.” Sociology. (45.6): 1061-1077.

Hervieu-Leger, Daniele. 2000. Religion as a Chain of Memory. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Roof, Wade Clark. 1999. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sticht, Christina. 2004. “The Role of the Churches in Germany.” May. Die Rolle Der Kirchen in Deutschland. Accessed February 18, 2012. Available at: http://www.goethe.de/ges/phi/dos/rkd/en2012816.htm