A Tacit Case for Autoethnography as a Crucial Research Method for Befuddling Times

The November 25 episode of the Religious Studies Project (Straight White American Jesus, the podcast) illuminates the capacity of a particularly powerful qualitative research method: autoethnography. Without ever explicitly referencing this academic mode of inquiry, Bradley Onishi makes a compelling case for it as a significant tool for cultivating an understanding of white evangelicalism in Trump-era America. He does so when he explains the goals of his own podcast, Straight White American Jesus. Onishi describes how he and his co-host, Dan Miller, strive to marshal the power of their own evangelical-insider stories in order to help their listening audience members

“think themselves into the places of evangelicals…so they can see the human element in it. It is so easy to reduce those we disagree with—especially those who seem to be harming our public sphere—to just reduce them to something demented, something that’s not right and just sort of push them away as hopeless…My hope is by sharing my story and Dan’s, too, that we can show folks that this is a very human culture, it’s a very human set of events, it’s a very human community. And if you can get a window into that, maybe it can help you when you’re at a school board meeting, or you’re at your election for the city council, or when you’re dealing with parents on your kid’s soccer team, or having a Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe it can give you a better approach for how to discuss these things with your neighbors, with your fellow citizens, with your colleagues…For me, the personal element is really, really important. It adds something…that makes it easier for a general audience to identify with and it also makes it easier for those who are ex-evangelicals—like I am—to feel like they have a way in to understand [the] academic discourse surrounding the culture that they are emerging from.”

Onishi and Miller’s histories are similar: formerly zealous evangelical leaders who no longer identify as evangelical; who nonetheless find themselves in possession of rich and copious amounts of insider knowledge about American evangelical thought, behavior, and belief; and who currently serve as professors with expertise in religious studies. While they rely on their personal stories to help their listeners make sense of American evangelical trends (with a primary purpose of examining why Donald Trump appears more like Jesus than any other politician white evangelicals have ever encountered), they weave together their own narratives with historical and social scientific insights from podcast guests who are prominent scholars of evangelical history and culture (e.g., Randall Balmer, Kristin DuMez, R. Marie Griffith, and Chrissy Stroop, to name just a few).


This fusion of the personal with the scholarly is a hallmark of autoethnography, an autobiographical research method that uses personal narrative to represent and make sense of culturally produced texts, experiences, beliefs, and practices. Autoethnographers consider personal experiences—packaged in well-crafted and detailed storiesas data that can offer a window into political and cultural norms and expectations. When rendered through a process of rigorous self-reflection (or “reflexivity”), autoethnographic accounts examine how the self and the social intersect. Ultimately, autoethnography shows people attempting to live their lives as they grapple with making meaningful sense of a particular struggle. It invites the reader to assume the role of a companion who responds, emotes, feels, and senses a need for something different. Bochner (2012) states it this way:

“Autoethnographies are not intended to be received, but rather to be encountered, conversed with, and appreciated. My concern is not with better science but with better living and thus I am not so much aiming for some goal called ‘truth’ as [I am aiming] for an enlarged capacity to deal with life’s challenges and contingencies. The truths of autoethnography exist between storyteller and story listener; they dwell in the listeners’ or readers’ engagement with the writer’s struggle with adversity, the heartbreaking feelings of stigma and marginalization, the resistance to the authority of canonical discourses, the therapeutic desire to face up to the challenges of life and to emerge with greater self-knowledge, the opposition to the repression of the body, the difficulty of finding the words to make bodily dysfunction meaningful, the desire for self-expression, and the urge to speak to and assist a community of fellow sufferers.”

[Image above taken from the cover of Bochner and Ellis’ (2016) Evocative Autoethnography: Writing Lives and Telling Stories]

Adams, Holman Jones, and Ellis (2015) highlight three interrelated concerns with traditional social scientific qualitative research that led to the development of autoethnography:

  1. Changing ideas about—and ideals for—what counts as “research” (including an acknowledgement of the limits of social scientific knowledge and an emergent recognition of the power of personal narrative, story, the literary and the aesthetic, emotions, and the body).
  2. Heightened concerns about the ethics and politics inherent in traditional positivist research practices and representations.
  3. Increased emphasis on the importance of examining social identities and identity politics.

Taken together, these concerns emphasize a need for reflexivity in research, which reveals how social identities like race, class, age, gender, sexuality, religion, and health impact what and how we study, what and how we see, and how we go about interpreting various phenomena. It requires researchers to accept and recognize that their situated knowledge and experience weaves itself into every stage of the research process. As a result, autoethnography rejects the notion that scholars should hide their subjectivities behind the guise of positivist ideologies. Thus, the chief purposes of autoethnography include:

    • disrupting traditional research norms,
    • working from insider rather than outsider knowledge,
    • maneuvering through pain, confusion, anger in order to make life better,
    • breaking silences, and
    • making scholarly work accessible to audiences outside the academy (Holman Jones, Adams, and Ellis, 2013)

Straight White American Jesus, Autoethnography, and Intellectual Rigor

Some skeptics of autoethnographic research deem it as self-indulgent, narcissistic, too emotional, self-absorbed (Anderson, 2006), as well as limited in its ability to develop, refine, or extend theory (Douglas and Carless, 2013).

Onishi anticipates that the Straight White American Jesus podcast might encounter similar critiques:

“I know there will be people out there in the religious studies world who will say ‘Dan and Brad, you are blurring the lines between insider and outsider, you’re blurring the lines between scholar and data.’ And I understand that perspective. I don’t necessarily agree with it.”

He explains how they work to ensure that each episode is held to rigorous intellectual and ethical standards:

“So when Dan and I go into any episode we do, we want to make sure that as we tell anecdotes from our past—as we recount what it was like to come home and have your family not be there and have your first thought be maybe the rapture happened and everyone got taken away and I didn’t—as we tell those stories, we always want to balance that with very rigorous scholarship. We want to do our homework. We want to go to the primary sources. We want to go to the data. We want to make sure we have that right so that we can make sure as scholars, and as people who have a platform, we are owning up and responding to that responsibility.”

Likewise, champions of autoethnography address their detractors by noting that high-quality autoethnographic projects must be held to rigorous standards. Adams, Holman Jones, and Ellis (2013, 2015), for instance, identify numerous goals and contributions of excellent autoethnographic works. I repackage some of them here as a series of six multifaceted questions that can be used to assess an autoethnographic text for its rigor and usefulness:

    1. Does it contribute to knowledge? Does it extend existing knowledge? Does it connect empirical knowledge with personal, grounded, intimate, hands-on insider insights? Does it critique current theoretical conceptualizations of a phenomenon? Does it ask questions about what current research leaves out or obscures?
    2. Does it prize personal experience? Does it feature a situated subject grappling with a cultural/social phenomenon? Does it present an intentionally vulnerable subject so readers might understand these experiences and the resulting emotions? Does it demonstrate the risks involved in making oneself autoethnographically vulnerable?
    3. Does it demonstrate the power and responsibilities of storytelling? Does the researcher place just as much weight on the craft of writing as on the demonstration of analytical prowess? Does the researcher use stories to describe and critique culture? Does the researcher use reflexivity to compel the reader to respond with constructive empathy?
    4. Does it demonstrate conscientious research? Does the research aim to engage and improve the lives of self, co-participants, and readers? Are safeguarding techniques used to secure the identities and privacy of vulnerable participants?
    5. Does it purposefully investigate problematic or confusing cultural practices? Does it demonstrate how some elements of society diminish, silence, or deny certain people or stories? Does it disrupt taboos, break silences, and reclaim lost and disregarded voices? Does it disrupt canonical narratives and question hegemonic beliefs and practices? Does it push itself away from simplistic autobiography (the mere illustration of something sad, joyful or problematic) and push itself toward a more complex autoethnography (a critique and analysis of the phenomenon under investigation)?
    6. Does it make the research findings accessible to multiple audiences? Rather than producing esoteric, jargon-laden texts, does this piece demonstrate a consideration of non-academic audiences? Does it consider the storytelling traditions and ways of using language that those outside the academy might engage?

Autoethnography: A Crucial Research Method for Befuddling Times

The aims of autoethnography—careful, creative, and responsible deployment of personal narrative as an illuminating force in the study of the cultural and the political—align with those of Onishi’s Straight White American Jesus in his attempt to avoid “reduction and demonization [of evangelicals]” while maintaining “the courage and the audacity to point as critical and unflinching of an eye on what’s happening.” At a time when mainstream understanding of evangelical culture is often laced with consternation and bewilderment, autoethnography and Straight White American Jesus (the podcast) offer themselves as crucial tools for gaining and conveying incisive insight and understanding.

The Important Tasks Facing American Religious Demographers

Listen to RSP’s interview with Dr. Robert P. Jones, “America’s Changing Religious Demographics.”

By Dr. Cyrus Schleifer

It is an exciting time to be mapping out the population and demographic level changes in the American religious landscape. The advent of high-quality data collection strategies – like those pursued by Dr. Robert P Jones and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) – as well as the speed by which religion is transforming in the face of modernizing processes and technological advances have created opportunities for scholars and students of religion in America to revisit and refine our understanding of religion’s place in our society. As Dr. Jones notes in this interview, the rise of the religiously unaffiliated marks a sea change in religious belonging in American over the past 30 years. These PRRI data suggest that around 25% of the entire population and 40% of young Americans no longer identify with any particular religious denomination. These statistics are echoed in the General Social Survey (22% of full population and 33% of those younger than 35 as of 2016), the National Survey of Youth and Religion, and several PEW datasets as well. Given that the rise of the religiously non-affiliated represents a large and potentially growing block of the American populace, understanding the mechanisms that might explain this shift has become one of the more important tasks facing American religious demographers. Below, I briefly outline some of the possible accounts that those studying the sociology of religion have theorized to explain these changes.

One prominent explanation is that America is now – however slowly – beginning to look more and more like Europe in terms of secularization. Indeed, David Voas and Mark Chaves (2016) have recently argued that American can no longer be viewed as an exceptional case in terms of secularization within modernized Western world. Instead, they observe decline in American religiosity that can largely be explained by cohort turnover – changes due to older, more traditionally religious generations passing away and being replace by less religious younger cohorts. These processes could explain the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, particularly among younger Americans.

However, other scholars have rejected this interpretation. In particular, Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock (2017) argued that these population-level shifts are not occurring among intensely religious Americans, who have remained a stable subpopulation when viewed as a proportion of the American populace. Instead, they observe declines in religiosity among the religiously moderate, who are opting into a more secular lifestyles or – though much more rarely – into more intensely religious groups. These findings are echoed in Dr. Jones’ study, and both these findings suggest that the American religious landscape no longer has room for these religious moderates. Untangling these processes will remain a major source of debate within the sociology of religion in light of these and other demographic shifts.  

Above, a map from the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies provides a county-by-county view of the dominant religious groups in the United States. ASARB conducts a census every 10 years, on the same schedule as the US Census. 

One potential move forward would be to acknowledge that individual religiosity can change alongside population level processes. In other words, by focusing entirely on cohort turnover, we may be missing some important individual-level changes in religious expression across the life course. Some of my own research has suggested that we need to begin collecting more panel and longitudinal data to order to better capture individual level change in religion. Panel data observes the same individuals at multiple time points and thereby can map how they change (or do not change) religiously across their life course. Using General Social Survey Panel data, my co-author and I (Bartlett and Schleifer 2016) observe that while young Americans (under 35 years old) are the most likely to disaffiliate religiously, those in the middle age groups (35-64 years old) are more likely to join an evangelical or conservative Protestant groups, and older individuals (65 years or older) – while these least likely age group to change affiliation – are also disaffiliating if they change at all. Accounting for these possibilities could lead to better projections of religious belonging across the US population.

Another popular explanation of the rise of in the religiously unaffiliated among the younger generation is the association of particular religious groups with conservative politics. In their now classic article, Hout and Fischer (2002) find that religious disaffiliation can be partially explained by religious individuals leaving traditional denominations for political reasons. In other words, these Americans remain religious but no longer identify with religious groups who have come to define themselves along political lines (see also: Lim, MacGregor, and Putnam 2010). This maybe further complicated by the emergence of political figures such as President Trump, who has been accused of extramarital infidelity that may have raised concerns among the religiously conservative in the past (Whitehead, Perry and Baker 2018) but whose commitment to appointing a judiciary aligned with their religio-political concerns (Martí 2018) allowed these religious conservatives to effectively overlook these potential moral failings.

The final note I wanted to raise in response to this interview is how complicated it is to disentangle one demographic process from another. While Dr. Jones has outlined the End of White Christian America, it is important to recognize that there are two trends that are at once distinct and intertwined: (1) The growth in the proportion of Americans who report no formal religious belonging and (2) the shifting racial composition in the US with new projections suggesting that by mid-century White Americans will make up less than 50 percent of the total population (Frey 2018). Dr. Jones makes a compelling argument that these two trends are, in part, related and can play a role in shaping American politics and religion. But it remains important to understand the ways in which these trends can be understood as distinct and separate as well. While the way forward is complicated, it is also vital. The best approach we have remains careful data collection as well thoughtful, rigorous, and innovative analyses of this information.


Bartlett, Bryce and Cyrus Schleifer. 2016.“Projecting Religious Switching in America: An Increment-decrement Life Tables Approach.” Population Association of America Annual Meeting, Washington, DC.

Frey, William H. 2018. Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics and Remaking America. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC.

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

Jones, Robert, P. 2016. The End of White Christian America. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Lim, Chaeyoon, Carol A. MacGregor, and Robert D. Putnam. 2010. “Secular and Liminal: Discovering Heterogeneity Among Religious Nones.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49 (4):596-618.

Martí, Gerardo. 2018. “The Unexpected Orthodoxy of Donald J. Trump: White Evangelical Support for the 45th President of the United States.” Sociology of Religion 80(1):1-8.

Schnabel, Landon and Sean Bock. 2017. “The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity of American Religion: A Response to Recent Research.” Sociological Science 4(28):2330-6696.

Voas, David and Mark Chaves. 2016. “Is the United States a Counterexample to the Secularization Thesis?” American Journal of Sociology 121(5):1517-56.

Whitehead, Andrew L., Samuel L. Perry and Joseph O. Baker. 2018. “Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election.” Sociology of Religion 79(2):147-71.

Measuring and Categorizing Young Adult Spirituality

By Amanda Ryan
Responding to Young People and Religion in a Global Perspective with Marcus Moberg and Sofia Sjö by Christopher Cotter

One of maybe the most mystifying age groups for researchers – and society, in general – is that of the “young adult”. The Millennial (born 1981-1996) and Generation Z or Post-Millennials (born 1997-present) age groups are under constant research to determine what exactly explains their behaviors, affiliations, beliefs, consumer patterns, working styles, and other aspects of their lives. Through the many different types of surveys and data, we see these two generations interacting with the world and their societies differently than other generations. Religion and spirituality of young adults is also on the minds of religious institutions and researchers.

The Pew Research Center has published numerous studies about Millennial religious beliefs and the growing number of “nones,” those that identify as atheist, agnostic, or hold no particular belief in religion. Researchers Marcus Moberg and Sofia Sjö are looking to take a deeper dive into young adult religious belief. Moberg and Sjö are from the Åbo Akademi University and are part of a team of researchers for The Young Adults and Religion in a Global Perspective project (YARG) led by Professor Peter Nynäs. The YARG Project aims to get a more thorough look at young adult religiosity through a multi-method approach, including forty to other forty-five researchers and research assistants and thirteen different contexts in which they are studying. Research currently on the topic of young adult religious behavior and connection is heavily focused within a Western context in Europe or North America. To create a more well-rounded data set, researchers have concentrated on studying university-aged students from various world contexts:; Finland, Sweden, Poland, Russia, Turkey, Israel, Ghana, Peru, the United States, Canada, and India. Although they still sample from Western nations, it can be argued that the religious values held in each of those countries are different, therefore impacting the young adult’s relationship with religion differently, and can be compared.

The methodology behind this project is quite intensive and ambitious in gaining insights on a subject that is highly personal and vast. Nynäs and the research team including, Moberg and Sjö, take a multi-method approach. They include both quantitative and qualitative methods as well as “forward and back translation” of research questions. A large element of their survey is the Faith Q-Sort survey developed by Dr. David Wulff. The Faith Q-Sort survey utilizes Q Methodology, which allows participants to sort statements based on the perceived proximity to the topic presented in the survey. This methodology allows the researcher to gain quantitative data on commonly subjective topics, such as religious belief and religiosity. Dr. Wulff (2011) used a 101 statement survey and a 9 category continuum for the participants to place the statements into. Once the statements are sorted by the participant into a forced distribution on the continuum, Wulff  was then able to place the participant into one of seven “faith archetypes” that emerged from the statements (Wheaton Magazine, 2012):

Traditionally Theistic: feels personally forgiven and protected by a spiritual being as well as guided and sustained by religious scriptures and prayer.

Secular-Humanistic: guided by scientific and rational principles as well as a core of values in striving to make the world a better place to live.

Spiritually Attuned: views the transcendent as a deep mystery and religious faith as a personal, never-ending quest; reports moments of profound illumination, especially in the midst of the natural world.

Reluctantly Skeptical: privately regrets the loss of all but the moral or ethical core of childhood faith; feels adrift, without a clear purpose or goal.

Institutionally Anchored: has an exceptionally strong commitment to the teachings and practices of some religious institution, seemingly in compensation for a guilt-ridden and precarious personal faith.

Extrinsically Religious: too busy to think about spiritual matters and impervious to the suffering of others; becomes more religious at times of personal crisis and prays to a protective, parent-like god for solace and protection.

Situationally Religious: 
views the world within a vague and shifting religious framework that comes more fully into focus in particular settings, including nature, in response to music, art or poetry, or during times of personal crisis.

Wulff (2011) crafted the questions in such a way to eliminate connection to a specific religious tradition but to be reflective of core principles that connect with people of different religious beliefs and those with no religious connection. The challenge for the YARG researchers is to hone the research tool to their research goals. Although Wulff developed this methodology to fit into non-Christian religions, the questions are still reflective of a Western cultural bias. Moberg and Sjö mention the use of “forward and back translations,” which allows the researchers to ensure the translations of each statement are culturally responsive to the different groups surveyed as well as comparable between groups.

The methodology is quite fascinating and should produce very interesting data and results. However, I must question what the exact purpose is in categorizing and labeling groups. Generational based surveys have taken place over the decades, but it can be argued that previous generations have not been influenced to change and adapt as quickly as Millennials and Generation Z. As a social researcher, I do think there is merit to trying to understand these age groups as they are developing, and I often find myself wading into similar research topics. My self-critique into this research is in asking “why?” and “for what?” Why this group, why this topic, and for what purpose? About 10 minutes into the interview, Moberg and Sjö are asked about their assumptions going into the research. Sjö states that research about this age group is really to gain understanding about the current younger generation. It is within the language of the underlaying assumptions that I disagree. She states; “They’re coming into the workforce: how can we handle them? How can we deal with them? Those sorts of issues coming up.” Sjö is correct that the younger generations are coming up as active members of society; however, the underlying assumption is that these younger generations are considered a problem that needs to be solved. Instead, what if social researchers and those specifically in the field of religion undergo a change in language and thought? Rather than “how do we deal with them,” what if researchers start from the base of “how do we include them,” “what are the values of these young people,” and “how must social institutions adapt to meet the needs of these generations, IF they are to continue to serve as instrumental structures within society?”


(2012). Wulff explores the psychology of religion. Wheaton Magazine. Retrieved from

Wulff, D.M. (2011) The faith q-sort: Advances on the assessment front [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 2 February 2016

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has submitted calls for papers, event notifications, job vacancies, etc. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

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Calls for papers

7th Queering Paradigms Conference

June 11–12, 2016

Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

Deadline: April 4, 2016

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Undergraduate conference: “Faith and Power”

August 4–7, 2016

Central European University, Hungary

Deadline: April 1, 2016

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Law and Religion Scholars Network

Cardiff University, UK

Deadline: February 29, 2016

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Sacred stuff: Material culture and the geography of religion

August 30–September 2, 2016

London, UK

Deadline: February 8, 2016

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Religion, literature and culture: Lines in sand

September 9–11, 2016

University of Glasgow, UK

Deadline: April 18, 2016

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Historical Re-Enactment, Contemporary Paganism and Fantasy-Based Movements

May 20–21, 2016

Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania

Deadline: March 21, 2016

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Islam and Peaceful Relations

April 5, 2016

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: February 15, 2016

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Postgraduate Conference on Religion and Theology: “Perfection”

March 11–12, 2016

University of Bristol, UK

Deadline: February 19, 2016

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Time and Myth: The Temporal and the Eternal

May 26–28, 2016

Masaryk University, Czech Republic

Deadline: March 15, 2016

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Fetish Boots and Running Shoes: Indecent Theology Today into Tomorrow

July 8, 2016

University of Winchester, UK

Deadline: March 7, 2016

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AAR 2016: Religion and Public Schools: International Perspectives Group

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

Deadline: March 1, 2016

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Fieldwork: Doing Ethnographic Research

June 24, 2016

Birmingham City University, UK

Deadline: March 25, 2016

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Inform seminar: New Religious Radicalisms

May 21, 2016

London School of Economics, UK

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Arbeitskreis interdisdisziplinäre Hexenforschung

February 18–20, 2016

Stuttgart-Hohenheim, Germany

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Research Methods in the Study of Religion

University of Kent, UK

Deadline: February 5, 2016

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2 PhD positions in sociology project: “Postsecular Conflicts”

University of Innsbruck, Austria

Deadline: February 15, 2016

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3 PhD studentships

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: February 19, 2016

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PhD position: “Multiple Secularities: Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities”

University of Leipzig, Germany

Deadline: February 5, 2016

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PhD studentship: Cognitive Science of Religion

Belfast, UK; Aarhus, Denmark

Deadline: April 29, 2016

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Visiting Fellowship

Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore

Deadline: March 31, 2016

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Associate Professor, Full Professor: Jewish History/Studies

Case Western Research University, OH, United States

Deadline: March 1, 2016

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Postdoctoral fellowship

University of Pennsylvania, USA

Deadline: February 15, 2016

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Instructor: Buddhist Studies

Antioch University, OH, USA

Deadline: April 15, 2016

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Postdoctoral Fellowship: Chinese Buddhism

Columbia University, NY, USA

Deadline: April 20, 2016

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

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

By Yasaman S. Munro, Wilfrid Laurier University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author:

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


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