Posts

Young People and Religion in a Global Perspective

Here at the RSP we are ever conscious of the perils of creating or reinforcing hard-and-fast distinctions between groups. However, it is arguably fair to see that, in contrast to previous generations, young people born after 1990 have always lived in social and cultural environments constituted by conspicuous consumerism, digital media and the proliferation of global social movements. Despite a number of detailed, contextual studies that have emerged in recent years concerning the complex interactions between young people and the religion-related field – indeed, we would strongly recommend listeners check out our podcast with Naomi Thompson on “Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality” – large-scale, international, and usefully comparable research has been lacking. Today, Chris is joined by Marcus Moberg and Sofia Sjö to discuss the fascinating “Young Adults and Religion in a Global Perspective” project, which has been addressing this dearth on a massive scale. In this interview, we discuss the logistics and some of the emerging findings of a project which has involved utilizing a number of innovative research methods – including the Faith Q-Sort – conducted simultaneously in different locations across the globe, including China, Finland, India, Israel, Japan, Ghana, Peru, Poland, Russia, Sweden, USA and Turkey.

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions’ 2018 conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, “get your flu shot here” buttons, Grateful Dead t-shirts, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Young People and Religion in a Global Perspective

Podcast with Marcus Moberg and Sofia Sjö. (14 January 2019)

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Moberg_and_Sjo_-_Young_People_and_Religion_in_a_Global_Perspective_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): I am at the European Association for the Study of Religion’s Conference in Bern, and I’m joined today by Marcus Moberg and Sofia Sjö of the Åbo Akademi University. And they are both senior researchers on a massive project called The Young Adults and Religion in a Global Perspective project: the YARG project. And I thought this would be an excellent time for us to sit down and talk about this multi-national, multi-researcher, poly-methodical project – which will sit nicely with our interview, a couple of years ago, with Naomi Thompson on Religion, Youth and Inter-generationality. So, first of all: Marcus and Sofia, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Sofia Sjö (SS): Thank you.

Marcus Moberg (MM): Thank you.

CC: Thanks for making the time, after your two intense panels this morning, and on this third day of the conference – after what was an excellent night out last night, I thought!

SS: We, of course, went to bed really early.

CC: Exactly. Of course. So just before we get into the broader topic, I’ve said you’re working on this massive project but you both are individuals in your own right, who do other things. So maybe you could take a moment just to say who you, are and your broader research interests, and that sort of thing.

MM: Well, I do most of my personal off-project research, really, in the area of the Sociology of Religion, and Religion in Media, and also Religion, Language and Discourse. I try to combine these and have different perspectives and approaches cross-fertilise one another, if you will. And some of these things I also bring to this project that we are now involved in. And this has been very much a team effort. And so none of us are that firmly, personally connected to this project, in terms of research profile. So we each bring our own research profiles to the project. And that makes it quite unique. And it makes the team dynamic – a bit different from what these types of projects usually are, or how they end up being.

CC: Wonderful. And Sofia?

SS: Well, I have a background in Religion and Media and Public Culture research, but I’ve also worked a lot with Religion and Gender. And, as Marcus was mentioning, that’s bringing a very different aspect into it. Because the last couple of years it’s the young adults that have been very much in focus for our research.

CC: So, before we get into the broad topic, then, of young adults and religion, let’s just . . . tell me about the project. How long has it been going on? I know it involves multiple researchers, multiple sites, and multiple methods. So, can you give the Listeners a flavour?

SS: The short version . . . this is the fourth year – of course it was planning before that as well, and applying for funding and all of that. There are thirteen contexts that we are studying, and I think we have forty to forty-five researchers and research assistants, worldwide.

CC: Wow!

SS: And we’re using the multi-method approach. And Marcus, go ahead and explain that!

MM: Well . . . we do call it the mixed method approach.

SS: That’s right.

MM: We are that ambitious, because not only do we use multiple methods, quantitative and qualitative – and in-between quantitative and qualitative types of instruments like the Faith Q -Sort that we have developed – but we also correlate the results of these methods and these instruments, directly to one another. And so the combination allows us to get a type of data that would not otherwise be possible. And, yes, so it’s a four-year project and we’re three-and-a-half years in, now. And it took about one, one-and-a-half years in the making before this. We started planning this already a year or so prior to applying for the funding that we eventually managed to land for this one. So it’s been a long ride.

SS: It’s been a part of our lives for quite some time.

CC: Yes. And you’re just getting to the point of, maybe, exorcising it – getting the publications out?

SS: That’s what’s on the table, yes. Writing, writing, writing!

CC: Excellent. So I note – I’m quite pleased – that there’s no UK case study in there. Again, Listeners, check out our previous podcasts for that. (5:00) So, there’re multiple nations: could you give us a hint of some of them, and what the selection process was? You know, you presumably tried to get quite a broad spread, and various demographics and things?

SS: We really started with trying to get beyond research that already exists. There is so much focussed on the Western contexts. So we started to try to use the networks of researchers in other parts of the world. If I’m going to list the countries, you’re going to have to help me!

MM: Well, it was also to some extent, I mean in the most general of terms, it was the selection of countries was also based on the Welsel-Ingelhart’s World Values Map. Because the project has this basis in value studies and worldview studies. So they have constructed, basically, a map of the whole world based on regions that are characterised by different types of main value profile. So, for example, people in some regions in the world tend to be more self-focussed, perhaps, and more interested in developing themselves, whereas others are more traditionally-oriented and more security-focussed. And so we got one country from each of these regions on this theoretical map.

SS: Which we were very happy about getting because, like I said, we started trying with the challenging cases. But we do have a lot of European countries, still. We have Finland and Sweden, Poland, Russia, Turkey. No good! I have to have a world map in my hand, when I do this.

CC: Brilliant, yes!

SS: Israel, Ghana, Peru, the US, Canada, China, Japan, India. Is that it?

CC: Well, it’s a pretty good stab at it. If you remember any more later in the interview you can just start shouting out the names of countries. But that’s an incredibly broad potential data set, I guess. So I imagine there were lots of issues in terms of managing to do a cross- national study, in that sense of translatability of terms. Or are you rooting studies very much in their own context? How generalising are you trying to be across these contexts?

MM: Well to connect to what Sofia was saying earlier, we also had to set up the project on the basis of the contacts that we either already had, or that we were able to get in each of these countries. And, of course, the main idea is not to be representative or to make any generalisations whatsoever but to see what kinds of data can be used to the different purposes we can generate, with this particular methodological approach that we have. So it’s about implementing a certain approach and to be able to compare different contexts, and also to develop the Faith Q –Sort, which is rather a new method in this context. And, yes.

SS: Definitely a big part of it has been to translate the methods and the different material that we use to get it to work in different contexts. And, I guess, some of the most challenging part was this Faith Q –Sort – which is this new method developed by Professor David Wulff and further developed by the project. Because there are 101 statements that relate to worldviews, and getting those translated into different languages, and the challenging . . . . Like Mika Lassander mentioned earlier in our session, with a concept like transcendence – that might make perfect sense in a Western contexts, but even finding a word for it in some of the languages is really difficult. So at the start of the project we did do a lot of work using this double translation process, which had a fancy name – what is it?

MM: Double . . .  Forward and Back translation. Which means that you translate and then you come up with another version and then you do it all over again, and see if it changes. But the idea was, basically, to replicate the study in more or less . . . or in as similar a way as possible, in every location. So we brought the research assistants over to Finland for ten days, or something like that. We went through all the methods and had them practise and then sent them back out in the world.

CC: Fantastic! (10:00) So, you presumably entered the research field here with a number of questions – maybe a number of assumptions? Maybe you can lay out some of the groundwork on what existing research would maybe tell us about young adults and religion, and then we can maybe get into some of the exciting findings coming from your comparative research.

SS: Well there’s a lot of previous research but, as I mentioned, it’s very Western. It’s the US, or the Nordic Countries, or the UK, for example. But there is of course a large interest now – not just in the field of religion but in other fields as well – to try to understand the current young generation. They’re coming into the workforce: how can we handle them? How can we deal with them? Those sorts of issues coming up. Generalising very much, the trends that have been highlighted in the Western research is, of course, that we see a decline in both religious self-identification and perhaps even more so in religious practice, in this group. And this has been related both to young adults as being a “phase” in life (in which they are) less connected to religious organisations; but also to (young adults as) a “cohort” : that this is a new generation because of their experiences of life, what is happening in society, connecting to media, values and so on. And they will be, perhaps, less interested in traditional forms of religion and traditional ways of being religious.

CC: And do you find that that sort of model of this phase, does it hold in different contexts or is that model perhaps quite Western?

SS: Yes and no. The idea with the Faith Q -Sort is to get at the over-simplifications of talking about religious and spiritual or non-religious. I really see that there are variations. What this method captures is perspectives on religiosity that shows that, in a context, there might not just be one way of being religious, there are very different ways of doing it, or relating to it, or having a worldview. So we get the complexity. We do definitely see the decline to some extent as well. We have, in the survey, questions where you are supposed to identify how religious the family you grew up in was, and then identify how religious you consider yourself to be. And here we can see a decline. But then, going into the interviews and also the Faith Q –Sort, we see that there’s a complexity in it. There’s this idea that runs through the material – quite, I would say, independent of context – of a freedom of choice. But then again, what does this mean in different contexts and where does this come from? Is it actually the young generation, or does it come with their parents? Where does this come in? So we get some trends that we were expecting, but there’s also complexity. And we see that we need to understand the context of the cases. Because it does look different in different contexts.

MM: And I might add that more on meta-theoretical level the project is also based on the assumption that values play a much larger role in affecting how people think about their religious engagements, and engaging religiously, than was previously presumed. So perhaps the project . . . this is to simplify what you might say: that instead of regarding religion, or religious beliefs and ideas as something that would affect and direct the values of a person, the project is more based, or rather based, on a perspective that has it the other way around. So that it is actually values, people’s value profiles that affect their religious choices. And so there is that additional element to it as well.

CC: Excellent. Before I prod you for some juicy specifics, I should ask, who are these young adults that you’re speaking to? I gather there’s quite an age variance? Maybe just . . . . Who are they? Who’s been participating?

SS: We’re focussing on university students which, again, immediately this is a limitation – everyone else is doing it as well. But we’re doing it in so many contexts. We actually gave a paper on this just in the previous session. And what we see, we’ve aimed at 18-30 so quite a broad range. But of course as we’re focussing on university students and university life, it’s quite different in different contexts. The ages vary a bit. The variation means that the mean age is between twenty to twenty-four – so this is the main focus of the groups.

CC: So I guess that’s worth emphasising. (15:00)It is young adults, rather than young people, or youths, I guess, in that sense. So I don’t know which aspects you might want to pick out. I know Marcus, here, was speaking earlier about the use of the internet and social media and things like that. That might be something. But I’m happy just for you to throw some interesting contextual findings at me.

MM: We had three basic, broad research questions that we’ve been working with, since the very beginning, one of which was socialisation, so: What can our data tell us about . . . ? What new things do we learn about processes of religious socialisation across different national contexts and cultural, social and religious contexts? And for people in this age? And we also add a focus on media uses from the very beginning. There is a widely held assumption in many strands and fields of research that the media environment and the internet in particular, as digital technologies continue to develop, that this will have a particular impact on younger people. Because these are the people who never knew anything else. They have grown up in this environment. So there is this assumption that it will affect their religious lives and their worldviews as well. And so this allows us to see how that actually plays out among our limited sample . . . but in a wide range of different contexts. And then thirdly, we have this idea of . . . presumption really, about rising levels of individualism across social and cultural borders. And that we had assumed it was really a research question in the true sense, that we wanted to find out whether people would be more, or our sample would be more inclined towards making their own decisions when it comes to religion and religious commitments. And to get into finer detail, perhaps, to see how they actually would describe that kind of a way of looking at things, if they indeed did, and so on. So we had those three things that we had around from the very start.

SS: And then the findings . . .

CC: (Laughs) Nice and easy!

SS: Ease into the thing, yes! I could talk about the socialisation. We’re doing a special issue on that for Religion, which will be coming out early next year, hopefully. It’s still in the making. And we’re looking at socialisation very broadly from very different perspectives. We’re looking at minorities, we’re also looking at media how it comes into it, and relating to this individualisation. I think, also, because of the question of religious decline, we see the need to have a very broad understanding, I would say, of religious socialisation and an awareness of the many different types of agents that are a part of these young people’s lives. So looking at the university contexts – which has of course also been studied before – but the importance of peers for this age group, and media – how it comes in. And I think what most of the articles that will be coming highlight is when we talk to them about their own upbringing, what they consider have affected it. It is really a complexity and relating to previous generations, relating to . . . in some contexts we can definitely see grandparents can come in as very essential, and other aspects. And this is of course the richness of a comparative approach. There’ve been some similarities, but then also uniqueness in some cases.

MM: Then there’s also the data that comes out of the Faith Q -Sort in these different countries. And that data generates what is called prototypes of people. So certain main ways, you might say, of sorting the cards that we have in what we called the Q set. So it generates prototypes of religiousness or non-religiousness or anything in between. And what is interesting for me, for example, is to see some of the people, or the people in these different countries who would fit into a . . . let’s say, a non-religious – in whatever way we define that in the non-religious prototype – how similar they are to each other, or how dissimilar, they might be to each other. So it also allows us to focus on the fine detail of what it might mean to be non-religious – or religious, for that matter, so . . . (20:00)

CC: Yes. So it allows that sort of questioning of: is religion the same in different contexts? Or, should we be speaking of different forms of Christianity, different forms of Islam? Or, does it make sense to have this religion-non religion spectrum?

MM: Well, yes. At the very least the data we have allows us to ask those questions – it forces us to ask those questions. But then again, each context should be . . . or each national context should be understood primarily on its own terms. But on a higher level of abstraction and generalisation we can still make comparisons between different countries and different prototypes that the data generates.

CC: And are you finding . . . . Obviously you’re only studying in this case this young adult group, but are you finding some insights that you think are more universal than just in the group? Or . . .

SS: That’s a big question. I would say, not to simplify . . . I think the media aspect, that it . . . . If you want to find similarities, they all seem to be using media – surprise, surprise! But how they use it, how they experience it, even there we see variations. So I think there is definitely a need to not generalise too much, to realise that there is a uniqueness in context. But, of course, within the context we see the variations. That also comes out of our method. Because the idea with the Faith Q -Sort is really to capture the variations, rather than to see what can be generalised about those, to see more of the variations. But I think that is at least what my experience of working with the interviews . . . . Of course, we have certain stories that come again and again. This is related to being a young adult and related to being a university student. But, depending on context, some of the contexts that we are studying see political struggles going on; some of them – like Ghana, of course – compared to the other contexts is very, very religious. Religion is a part of daily life. That’s what one of our research colleagues pointed out. There’s not really a secular space – it’s all religious space. And this will shape your experience. And, as Marcus mentioned with the non-religiosity, we find non-religious people in all these contexts. But it’s different if it’s in Turkey – a very religious context, than in Sweden, where you almost have to explain if you’re religious. It’s sort of the other way round.

CC: Yes. That’s excellent, yes. And that’s . . . . You’ll both know that’s one of the many reasons that I’ll be particularly interested in the results of this study. So it seems that you’ve hopefully managed the impossible, in the sense that you’ve got a critically-engaged worry about generalising and about reifying categories and everything. And you’ve managed to take that sort-of critically plugged-in approach and then massive scale research. So . . .

MM: Yes, well it’s like Mika Lassander – who is one of the main promoters of this project – said in his presentation, earlier today: that we have a good enough result. It allows us to do a lot of things. It also has its limitations. But considering the operation that we had going in these different countries – with all that involves in terms of . . . we’re already into translation, but other types of logistics – we ended up with a pretty good result that we are happy with, I would say.

SS: Happy enough. Yes. It’s been good both on national teams – that’s been fantastic – and the head of our project, Professor Peter Nynäs, has also done a great job with keeping it all going. So I think we’re satisfied . . .

CC: Good. Because a lot of scholars might hesitate . . . just not go near quantitative, comparative . . . “No, let’s not do it. It’s too risky!” But it’s great that you’ve gone in with critical engagement, too. So we’re just about coming up to time. But obviously this will just skim the surface and make the Listeners think: (25:00) “Wow there’s a lot of data there! I’m really looking forward to all the in-depth publications and everything!” Can you tell us – you’ve mentioned a special issue of Religion – what are the other outputs, I suppose, from the project?

SS: We both have a main volume that will be coming out with Springer in 2019, which is the main findings. A lot of focus on the Faith Q -Sort, but also trying to cover the different material that we have. Then me, and Marcus, and Mia Lövheim, we’re editing a volume of Religion on young adults and social media. Do you want to say something more about that?

MM: Yes that’s just to pick up on the media use and social media use among our respondents. Because that is something that we can gather a lot of data on. And our examples . . . let’s say that there are not many similar samples around, so it allows us to compare and relate our results to previous research. And that’s the way that we aim to branch out, to see what . . . to try to make a contribution – sometimes a larger one, a more substantial one, sometimes a smaller one – but to other fields, also. We try to use the project data to get into conversation with ongoing research in other fields that relate to the fields that we have been focussing on.

CC: And will there be – I know there’s . . . currently things are sort-of hidden a little bit, online. So will there be a sort-of – when everything’s complete – a web presence for the project?

MM: Yes, I think that has been the plan, but our university recently decided to reorganise its webpages and so all of the info is hidden behind an intranet password wall. So hopefully. . .

SS: This Fall, they promise we will get this fixed!

CC: Well it is June when we’re recording, but it could be that the website will actually be there by the time this is broadcast. So hopefully we won’t have long to wait, Listeners! Well, we’ve talked very much around that project, there. I think we should call it a day, so we can all go and get some coffee. Thanks so much Marcus and Sofia.

Both: Thank you.


Citation Info: Moberg, Marcus, Sofia Sjö and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “Young People and Religion in a Global Perspective”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 14 January 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 13 July 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/young-people-and-religion-in-a-global-perspective/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

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.

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.

Podcasts

Young People and Religion in a Global Perspective

Here at the RSP we are ever conscious of the perils of creating or reinforcing hard-and-fast distinctions between groups. However, it is arguably fair to see that, in contrast to previous generations, young people born after 1990 have always lived in social and cultural environments constituted by conspicuous consumerism, digital media and the proliferation of global social movements. Despite a number of detailed, contextual studies that have emerged in recent years concerning the complex interactions between young people and the religion-related field – indeed, we would strongly recommend listeners check out our podcast with Naomi Thompson on “Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality” – large-scale, international, and usefully comparable research has been lacking. Today, Chris is joined by Marcus Moberg and Sofia Sjö to discuss the fascinating “Young Adults and Religion in a Global Perspective” project, which has been addressing this dearth on a massive scale. In this interview, we discuss the logistics and some of the emerging findings of a project which has involved utilizing a number of innovative research methods – including the Faith Q-Sort – conducted simultaneously in different locations across the globe, including China, Finland, India, Israel, Japan, Ghana, Peru, Poland, Russia, Sweden, USA and Turkey.

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions’ 2018 conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, “get your flu shot here” buttons, Grateful Dead t-shirts, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Young People and Religion in a Global Perspective

Podcast with Marcus Moberg and Sofia Sjö. (14 January 2019)

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Moberg_and_Sjo_-_Young_People_and_Religion_in_a_Global_Perspective_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): I am at the European Association for the Study of Religion’s Conference in Bern, and I’m joined today by Marcus Moberg and Sofia Sjö of the Åbo Akademi University. And they are both senior researchers on a massive project called The Young Adults and Religion in a Global Perspective project: the YARG project. And I thought this would be an excellent time for us to sit down and talk about this multi-national, multi-researcher, poly-methodical project – which will sit nicely with our interview, a couple of years ago, with Naomi Thompson on Religion, Youth and Inter-generationality. So, first of all: Marcus and Sofia, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Sofia Sjö (SS): Thank you.

Marcus Moberg (MM): Thank you.

CC: Thanks for making the time, after your two intense panels this morning, and on this third day of the conference – after what was an excellent night out last night, I thought!

SS: We, of course, went to bed really early.

CC: Exactly. Of course. So just before we get into the broader topic, I’ve said you’re working on this massive project but you both are individuals in your own right, who do other things. So maybe you could take a moment just to say who you, are and your broader research interests, and that sort of thing.

MM: Well, I do most of my personal off-project research, really, in the area of the Sociology of Religion, and Religion in Media, and also Religion, Language and Discourse. I try to combine these and have different perspectives and approaches cross-fertilise one another, if you will. And some of these things I also bring to this project that we are now involved in. And this has been very much a team effort. And so none of us are that firmly, personally connected to this project, in terms of research profile. So we each bring our own research profiles to the project. And that makes it quite unique. And it makes the team dynamic – a bit different from what these types of projects usually are, or how they end up being.

CC: Wonderful. And Sofia?

SS: Well, I have a background in Religion and Media and Public Culture research, but I’ve also worked a lot with Religion and Gender. And, as Marcus was mentioning, that’s bringing a very different aspect into it. Because the last couple of years it’s the young adults that have been very much in focus for our research.

CC: So, before we get into the broad topic, then, of young adults and religion, let’s just . . . tell me about the project. How long has it been going on? I know it involves multiple researchers, multiple sites, and multiple methods. So, can you give the Listeners a flavour?

SS: The short version . . . this is the fourth year – of course it was planning before that as well, and applying for funding and all of that. There are thirteen contexts that we are studying, and I think we have forty to forty-five researchers and research assistants, worldwide.

CC: Wow!

SS: And we’re using the multi-method approach. And Marcus, go ahead and explain that!

MM: Well . . . we do call it the mixed method approach.

SS: That’s right.

MM: We are that ambitious, because not only do we use multiple methods, quantitative and qualitative – and in-between quantitative and qualitative types of instruments like the Faith Q -Sort that we have developed – but we also correlate the results of these methods and these instruments, directly to one another. And so the combination allows us to get a type of data that would not otherwise be possible. And, yes, so it’s a four-year project and we’re three-and-a-half years in, now. And it took about one, one-and-a-half years in the making before this. We started planning this already a year or so prior to applying for the funding that we eventually managed to land for this one. So it’s been a long ride.

SS: It’s been a part of our lives for quite some time.

CC: Yes. And you’re just getting to the point of, maybe, exorcising it – getting the publications out?

SS: That’s what’s on the table, yes. Writing, writing, writing!

CC: Excellent. So I note – I’m quite pleased – that there’s no UK case study in there. Again, Listeners, check out our previous podcasts for that. (5:00) So, there’re multiple nations: could you give us a hint of some of them, and what the selection process was? You know, you presumably tried to get quite a broad spread, and various demographics and things?

SS: We really started with trying to get beyond research that already exists. There is so much focussed on the Western contexts. So we started to try to use the networks of researchers in other parts of the world. If I’m going to list the countries, you’re going to have to help me!

MM: Well, it was also to some extent, I mean in the most general of terms, it was the selection of countries was also based on the Welsel-Ingelhart’s World Values Map. Because the project has this basis in value studies and worldview studies. So they have constructed, basically, a map of the whole world based on regions that are characterised by different types of main value profile. So, for example, people in some regions in the world tend to be more self-focussed, perhaps, and more interested in developing themselves, whereas others are more traditionally-oriented and more security-focussed. And so we got one country from each of these regions on this theoretical map.

SS: Which we were very happy about getting because, like I said, we started trying with the challenging cases. But we do have a lot of European countries, still. We have Finland and Sweden, Poland, Russia, Turkey. No good! I have to have a world map in my hand, when I do this.

CC: Brilliant, yes!

SS: Israel, Ghana, Peru, the US, Canada, China, Japan, India. Is that it?

CC: Well, it’s a pretty good stab at it. If you remember any more later in the interview you can just start shouting out the names of countries. But that’s an incredibly broad potential data set, I guess. So I imagine there were lots of issues in terms of managing to do a cross- national study, in that sense of translatability of terms. Or are you rooting studies very much in their own context? How generalising are you trying to be across these contexts?

MM: Well to connect to what Sofia was saying earlier, we also had to set up the project on the basis of the contacts that we either already had, or that we were able to get in each of these countries. And, of course, the main idea is not to be representative or to make any generalisations whatsoever but to see what kinds of data can be used to the different purposes we can generate, with this particular methodological approach that we have. So it’s about implementing a certain approach and to be able to compare different contexts, and also to develop the Faith Q –Sort, which is rather a new method in this context. And, yes.

SS: Definitely a big part of it has been to translate the methods and the different material that we use to get it to work in different contexts. And, I guess, some of the most challenging part was this Faith Q –Sort – which is this new method developed by Professor David Wulff and further developed by the project. Because there are 101 statements that relate to worldviews, and getting those translated into different languages, and the challenging . . . . Like Mika Lassander mentioned earlier in our session, with a concept like transcendence – that might make perfect sense in a Western contexts, but even finding a word for it in some of the languages is really difficult. So at the start of the project we did do a lot of work using this double translation process, which had a fancy name – what is it?

MM: Double . . .  Forward and Back translation. Which means that you translate and then you come up with another version and then you do it all over again, and see if it changes. But the idea was, basically, to replicate the study in more or less . . . or in as similar a way as possible, in every location. So we brought the research assistants over to Finland for ten days, or something like that. We went through all the methods and had them practise and then sent them back out in the world.

CC: Fantastic! (10:00) So, you presumably entered the research field here with a number of questions – maybe a number of assumptions? Maybe you can lay out some of the groundwork on what existing research would maybe tell us about young adults and religion, and then we can maybe get into some of the exciting findings coming from your comparative research.

SS: Well there’s a lot of previous research but, as I mentioned, it’s very Western. It’s the US, or the Nordic Countries, or the UK, for example. But there is of course a large interest now – not just in the field of religion but in other fields as well – to try to understand the current young generation. They’re coming into the workforce: how can we handle them? How can we deal with them? Those sorts of issues coming up. Generalising very much, the trends that have been highlighted in the Western research is, of course, that we see a decline in both religious self-identification and perhaps even more so in religious practice, in this group. And this has been related both to young adults as being a “phase” in life (in which they are) less connected to religious organisations; but also to (young adults as) a “cohort” : that this is a new generation because of their experiences of life, what is happening in society, connecting to media, values and so on. And they will be, perhaps, less interested in traditional forms of religion and traditional ways of being religious.

CC: And do you find that that sort of model of this phase, does it hold in different contexts or is that model perhaps quite Western?

SS: Yes and no. The idea with the Faith Q -Sort is to get at the over-simplifications of talking about religious and spiritual or non-religious. I really see that there are variations. What this method captures is perspectives on religiosity that shows that, in a context, there might not just be one way of being religious, there are very different ways of doing it, or relating to it, or having a worldview. So we get the complexity. We do definitely see the decline to some extent as well. We have, in the survey, questions where you are supposed to identify how religious the family you grew up in was, and then identify how religious you consider yourself to be. And here we can see a decline. But then, going into the interviews and also the Faith Q –Sort, we see that there’s a complexity in it. There’s this idea that runs through the material – quite, I would say, independent of context – of a freedom of choice. But then again, what does this mean in different contexts and where does this come from? Is it actually the young generation, or does it come with their parents? Where does this come in? So we get some trends that we were expecting, but there’s also complexity. And we see that we need to understand the context of the cases. Because it does look different in different contexts.

MM: And I might add that more on meta-theoretical level the project is also based on the assumption that values play a much larger role in affecting how people think about their religious engagements, and engaging religiously, than was previously presumed. So perhaps the project . . . this is to simplify what you might say: that instead of regarding religion, or religious beliefs and ideas as something that would affect and direct the values of a person, the project is more based, or rather based, on a perspective that has it the other way around. So that it is actually values, people’s value profiles that affect their religious choices. And so there is that additional element to it as well.

CC: Excellent. Before I prod you for some juicy specifics, I should ask, who are these young adults that you’re speaking to? I gather there’s quite an age variance? Maybe just . . . . Who are they? Who’s been participating?

SS: We’re focussing on university students which, again, immediately this is a limitation – everyone else is doing it as well. But we’re doing it in so many contexts. We actually gave a paper on this just in the previous session. And what we see, we’ve aimed at 18-30 so quite a broad range. But of course as we’re focussing on university students and university life, it’s quite different in different contexts. The ages vary a bit. The variation means that the mean age is between twenty to twenty-four – so this is the main focus of the groups.

CC: So I guess that’s worth emphasising. (15:00)It is young adults, rather than young people, or youths, I guess, in that sense. So I don’t know which aspects you might want to pick out. I know Marcus, here, was speaking earlier about the use of the internet and social media and things like that. That might be something. But I’m happy just for you to throw some interesting contextual findings at me.

MM: We had three basic, broad research questions that we’ve been working with, since the very beginning, one of which was socialisation, so: What can our data tell us about . . . ? What new things do we learn about processes of religious socialisation across different national contexts and cultural, social and religious contexts? And for people in this age? And we also add a focus on media uses from the very beginning. There is a widely held assumption in many strands and fields of research that the media environment and the internet in particular, as digital technologies continue to develop, that this will have a particular impact on younger people. Because these are the people who never knew anything else. They have grown up in this environment. So there is this assumption that it will affect their religious lives and their worldviews as well. And so this allows us to see how that actually plays out among our limited sample . . . but in a wide range of different contexts. And then thirdly, we have this idea of . . . presumption really, about rising levels of individualism across social and cultural borders. And that we had assumed it was really a research question in the true sense, that we wanted to find out whether people would be more, or our sample would be more inclined towards making their own decisions when it comes to religion and religious commitments. And to get into finer detail, perhaps, to see how they actually would describe that kind of a way of looking at things, if they indeed did, and so on. So we had those three things that we had around from the very start.

SS: And then the findings . . .

CC: (Laughs) Nice and easy!

SS: Ease into the thing, yes! I could talk about the socialisation. We’re doing a special issue on that for Religion, which will be coming out early next year, hopefully. It’s still in the making. And we’re looking at socialisation very broadly from very different perspectives. We’re looking at minorities, we’re also looking at media how it comes into it, and relating to this individualisation. I think, also, because of the question of religious decline, we see the need to have a very broad understanding, I would say, of religious socialisation and an awareness of the many different types of agents that are a part of these young people’s lives. So looking at the university contexts – which has of course also been studied before – but the importance of peers for this age group, and media – how it comes in. And I think what most of the articles that will be coming highlight is when we talk to them about their own upbringing, what they consider have affected it. It is really a complexity and relating to previous generations, relating to . . . in some contexts we can definitely see grandparents can come in as very essential, and other aspects. And this is of course the richness of a comparative approach. There’ve been some similarities, but then also uniqueness in some cases.

MM: Then there’s also the data that comes out of the Faith Q -Sort in these different countries. And that data generates what is called prototypes of people. So certain main ways, you might say, of sorting the cards that we have in what we called the Q set. So it generates prototypes of religiousness or non-religiousness or anything in between. And what is interesting for me, for example, is to see some of the people, or the people in these different countries who would fit into a . . . let’s say, a non-religious – in whatever way we define that in the non-religious prototype – how similar they are to each other, or how dissimilar, they might be to each other. So it also allows us to focus on the fine detail of what it might mean to be non-religious – or religious, for that matter, so . . . (20:00)

CC: Yes. So it allows that sort of questioning of: is religion the same in different contexts? Or, should we be speaking of different forms of Christianity, different forms of Islam? Or, does it make sense to have this religion-non religion spectrum?

MM: Well, yes. At the very least the data we have allows us to ask those questions – it forces us to ask those questions. But then again, each context should be . . . or each national context should be understood primarily on its own terms. But on a higher level of abstraction and generalisation we can still make comparisons between different countries and different prototypes that the data generates.

CC: And are you finding . . . . Obviously you’re only studying in this case this young adult group, but are you finding some insights that you think are more universal than just in the group? Or . . .

SS: That’s a big question. I would say, not to simplify . . . I think the media aspect, that it . . . . If you want to find similarities, they all seem to be using media – surprise, surprise! But how they use it, how they experience it, even there we see variations. So I think there is definitely a need to not generalise too much, to realise that there is a uniqueness in context. But, of course, within the context we see the variations. That also comes out of our method. Because the idea with the Faith Q -Sort is really to capture the variations, rather than to see what can be generalised about those, to see more of the variations. But I think that is at least what my experience of working with the interviews . . . . Of course, we have certain stories that come again and again. This is related to being a young adult and related to being a university student. But, depending on context, some of the contexts that we are studying see political struggles going on; some of them – like Ghana, of course – compared to the other contexts is very, very religious. Religion is a part of daily life. That’s what one of our research colleagues pointed out. There’s not really a secular space – it’s all religious space. And this will shape your experience. And, as Marcus mentioned with the non-religiosity, we find non-religious people in all these contexts. But it’s different if it’s in Turkey – a very religious context, than in Sweden, where you almost have to explain if you’re religious. It’s sort of the other way round.

CC: Yes. That’s excellent, yes. And that’s . . . . You’ll both know that’s one of the many reasons that I’ll be particularly interested in the results of this study. So it seems that you’ve hopefully managed the impossible, in the sense that you’ve got a critically-engaged worry about generalising and about reifying categories and everything. And you’ve managed to take that sort-of critically plugged-in approach and then massive scale research. So . . .

MM: Yes, well it’s like Mika Lassander – who is one of the main promoters of this project – said in his presentation, earlier today: that we have a good enough result. It allows us to do a lot of things. It also has its limitations. But considering the operation that we had going in these different countries – with all that involves in terms of . . . we’re already into translation, but other types of logistics – we ended up with a pretty good result that we are happy with, I would say.

SS: Happy enough. Yes. It’s been good both on national teams – that’s been fantastic – and the head of our project, Professor Peter Nynäs, has also done a great job with keeping it all going. So I think we’re satisfied . . .

CC: Good. Because a lot of scholars might hesitate . . . just not go near quantitative, comparative . . . “No, let’s not do it. It’s too risky!” But it’s great that you’ve gone in with critical engagement, too. So we’re just about coming up to time. But obviously this will just skim the surface and make the Listeners think: (25:00) “Wow there’s a lot of data there! I’m really looking forward to all the in-depth publications and everything!” Can you tell us – you’ve mentioned a special issue of Religion – what are the other outputs, I suppose, from the project?

SS: We both have a main volume that will be coming out with Springer in 2019, which is the main findings. A lot of focus on the Faith Q -Sort, but also trying to cover the different material that we have. Then me, and Marcus, and Mia Lövheim, we’re editing a volume of Religion on young adults and social media. Do you want to say something more about that?

MM: Yes that’s just to pick up on the media use and social media use among our respondents. Because that is something that we can gather a lot of data on. And our examples . . . let’s say that there are not many similar samples around, so it allows us to compare and relate our results to previous research. And that’s the way that we aim to branch out, to see what . . . to try to make a contribution – sometimes a larger one, a more substantial one, sometimes a smaller one – but to other fields, also. We try to use the project data to get into conversation with ongoing research in other fields that relate to the fields that we have been focussing on.

CC: And will there be – I know there’s . . . currently things are sort-of hidden a little bit, online. So will there be a sort-of – when everything’s complete – a web presence for the project?

MM: Yes, I think that has been the plan, but our university recently decided to reorganise its webpages and so all of the info is hidden behind an intranet password wall. So hopefully. . .

SS: This Fall, they promise we will get this fixed!

CC: Well it is June when we’re recording, but it could be that the website will actually be there by the time this is broadcast. So hopefully we won’t have long to wait, Listeners! Well, we’ve talked very much around that project, there. I think we should call it a day, so we can all go and get some coffee. Thanks so much Marcus and Sofia.

Both: Thank you.


Citation Info: Moberg, Marcus, Sofia Sjö and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “Young People and Religion in a Global Perspective”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 14 January 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 13 July 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/young-people-and-religion-in-a-global-perspective/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

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.

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.