Gender-as-Lived: Considerations in Ethnographic Methodology


Virgin Mary

In the Religious Studies Project’s recent interview with Dr. Anna Fedele, Dr. Fedele and her interviewer discuss several aspects of interest related to the intersections of gender, religions, and power dynamics. Fedele’s book, Gender and Power in Contemporary Spirituality: Ethnographic Approaches (Routledge, 2013), is a collection of essays exploring the interaction of gender, gender norms, expressions of power, and those movements broadly identified as ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’ (If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, it is an excellent set of essays and well worth the read). Fedele’s current research involves Catholic women in Portugal and the idea of ‘spiritual motherhood.’ ‘Spiritual motherhood,’ in this context, means women who have chosen to be stay-at-home-mothers, breastfeed longer than the average, give birth at home, and/or practice attachment parenting. Fedele looks at not only the experiences of the women as mothers, but their experiences as daughters and granddaughters. Fedele observes that it is very important to understand a woman’s history to know how she conceptualizes gender and motherhood.

Early in the interview Fedele offers an answer to the not-so-simple question of ‘what is gender?’ Her answer is based in both her study of classical theories of gender as well as her extensive experience as an ethnographer: ‘gender’ is what the research participants believe it to be, rather than what the researcher believes it to be. Fedele states that in her research, she tries to understand what ‘gender’ means for the people she studies, especially what gendered images they have received from their mothers and grandmothers. This relates to religion as well, because the women receive a whole set of values from their mothers, and the Catholicism in which they grew up (and still live) tells them that the mother is the center of the family, the mother must always be there for the child, as well as other notions that may not reflect the lives of the women Fedele studies.

Fedele’s approach of being guided by the women she studies resonates strongly with my perspective on studying ‘religion(s).’ The identities claimed by the individual(s) or community being researched must be acknowledged and respected by the researcher, and communicated to the audience (reader, students in a seminar, etc.) along with the researcher’s perspective and conclusions. Fedele further emphasizes this point when she observes that an academic researcher must acknowledge the power issues present in a researcher-interviewee relationship: the academic doesn’t know everything, nor is the participant ignorant. Fedele provides an example from her recent research on women, motherhood, and gendered roles conveyed via religion. The women she interviews are highly educated, intelligent, and have read extensively on pregnancy and motherhood. They are then struggling to reconcile the message of the Catholic Church (that a pregnant woman is in a state of grace, and the ideals of motherhood exemplified by the Virgin Mary) with their lived reality of physical pain and illness, sexuality, and spurts of emotions such as anger or impatience.

Sandro Botticelli - 'The Virgin and the Child' (Madonna of the Book)

Sandro Botticelli – ‘The Virgin and the Child’ (Madonna of the Book)

Fedele also cautions that scholars have an awareness of their own assumptions about the research topic. Some of Fedele’s colleagues had made a couple of highly inaccurate assumptions regarding the Portuguese women in Fedele’s study (for instance, the idea that because the women identify as religious they therefore follow all of the dictates of the Catholic Church, especially regarding abortion); the women must be anti-abortion because they value motherhood so highly, or so the assumption went. But Fedele’s research shows a much more nuanced, complicated picture: the women are not uniformly anti-abortion, owing to a distinct contrast between their Catholic upbringing, which taught that abortion is wrong, and what the women feel in their bodies and the agency they claim.

Later in the interview, Fedele emphasizes that it is crucial for scholars to have an awareness of how the religion is lived, in reality, by the people being studied. She further states that religion only exists in the lives of people and that while religion in texts can be studied, it is not alive. For example, in practice this means that she looks at living women and their stories, and shares her writing with them. She keeps an open mind regarding what they tell her and is careful to use non-judgmental language. Fedele notes that the women aren’t always interested in Fedele’s conclusions – some just read sections about themselves for accuracy or to make sure they aren’t identifiable – but some engage with the research as a whole.

These are valuable lessons for scholars of not only religion and gender, but are more broadly applicable to all scholars of religion. Whether a scholar is studying a living community, as Fedele does, or researching a text, we must be aware of the assumptions we carry with us as scholars. A person living a religion may appear different than a text would lead the researcher to believe and living communities of the same religion will differ based on location. (A point also noted by Jeff Wilson in his 2012 book, Dixie Dharma.) Fedele also leaves the listener contemplating a thorny problem related to the study of religion-as-lived (her preferred phrasing instead of ‘lived religion’): Fedele’s in-depth, ethnographic research is at odds with the pressure within departments for faculty to expediently finish research so that it can be published quickly. This hurried model of research and publication – and the constraints on conducting ethnographic research while teaching – is ultimately detrimental to the field. The trust between scholar and participant cannot be rushed or forced because the scholar is on a deadline. What valuable insights is the field missing by making it difficult for scholars to perform extensive studies on living communities?


Fedele, Anna and Kim E. Knibbe, eds. Gender and Power in Contemporary Spirituality: Ethnographic Approaches. Routledge Studies in Religion Series. New York & London: Routledge, 2013.

Fedele, Anna. Looking for Mary Magdalene: Alternative Pilgrimage and Ritual Creativity at Catholic Shrines in France. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Wilson, Jeff. Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. (Paperback released in 2014)

Ethics on the Internet: Public versus Private, is it that simple?

Ethics on the Internet: Public versus Private, is it that simple?

By Lauren Bernauer, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 3 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Tim Hutchings on Digital Religion (1 October 2012).

In this week’s podcast about religion and digital media, Tim Hutchings and Jonathan Tuckett discuss various areas of current research into religion and digital media, such as use of online forums, creation of prayer groups and pages, and also the use of virtual worlds like Second Life in people’s religiosity, and the ability to construct churches and temples in such settings.  My own research deals with digital media and religion, although is more about the religious content of that media than how religious people might engage with it. Yet, I must still examine forums and blogs for general fan reactions to such content, and it is the potential ethics around this type of research practice that will be the focus of this discussion.

When it comes to discovering a community’s response to an issue of interest, the Internet serves as a great resource, for often people will share their opinions on public forums and blogs for the rest of the world to read.  For a researcher this is an easy way to gather material for an argument without having to engage with an ethics committee, or even with the people writing the forum or blog posts.  As these people have made their posts public, they will be found via search engines or the simple browsing of a forum or website. Thus it is generally considered that this content is public domain (McKee & Porter 2009, p.9). However there is some evidence that attitudes towards this are changing.

Before discussing the changes that are occurring in some universities around ethics, the issue of what constitutes ‘public’ and ‘private’ on the Internet should also be considered.  Some might view this simply as a case of: if it can be read without having to sign up and potentially have someone approve your membership, then it is public content.  However, as some scholars have rightly pointed out, just because the place is viewable to all, it does not mean that the members consider their discussions to be public (Elm 2008).  An example of this is Norman K. Denzin’s research of people’s use of a Usenet group to discuss their emotional stories related to destructive relationships (Denzin 1998).  As the archives of this group are open access, Denzin was freely able to find and use the information that members of the community posted, without having to seek consent for its use.  Despite the group’s posting archive being publicly accessible, the people who posted their private stories may not have intended for them to be read by an outsider, someone who had not been involved in similar abusive emotional situations.

Denzin’s research did occur some fourteen years ago when the Internet was still relatively new and not as widespread as it is now. Yet, about the same length of time ago, in 1995, Lynne Schrum wrote on ethics for Internet research, and how the ethics used in standard research might be adapted for those doing research online.  Under the concept of Privacy she writes:

Closely related to unintended or unanticipated harm, the issue of privacy evokes strong emotions among researchers.  Guba and Lincoln (1989) maintain that privacy and confidentiality have also been defined too narrowly, so that the personal space of individuals, including many areas of intense and private significance, are too often considered by researchers to be open to investigation. (Schrum 1995, p.315)

In their recent work, The Ethics of Internet Research (2009), Heidi A. McKee and James E. Porter have built upon the previous research of Mali Sveningsson (2004) to map where statements and information a person reveals online might sit on an X-Y grid.  The X axis represents Private to Public, while the Y axis scales Non-Sensitive to Sensitive.  McKee and Porter add to this by determining that if information can be placed in the Public-Non-Sensitive quadrant or just outside of it, the information should be regarded as not requiring informed consent.  Examples given include; a resume listed online is Private but Non-Sensitive and thus would not need informed consent, while a public blog discussing a personal account of abuse, despite being Public is highly Sensitive and informed consent should be obtained before using the information in research (McKee & Porter 2009, pp.20–21).

My research deals with statements and information in the Public-Non-Sensitive quadrant, and as this is the case, should consent be gained from those whose public forum posts I have quoted?  I do not actively engage with these communities, or even actively ‘lurk’, which is considered an advantageous research method by some (Brownlow & O’Dell 2002, p.685), yet the guidelines created by Barbara F. Sharf after her research and communication with an online Breast Cancer support group would suggest that I should (Sharf 1999, pp.254–255).  However it would seem that Sharf’s research would fall into the Sensitive half of Sveningsson’s grid, and as she was actively engaging with the participants of the community, informed consent does seem to be important.

The issues surrounding ethics when researching online and utilising information provided seemingly freely by members of different communities are not clear.  For those interviewing and engaging with people via a digital medium for their research it would seem only sensible that they follow standard ethical guidelines and obtain ethics clearance, just as they would for face-to-face interviews.  Yet, what is not clear is casual observation of forum posting, reading the comments on a YouTube video or blog post.  If it is viewable by all, is it public domain?  Denzin considered it so, yet the Private-Public/Non-Sensitive-Sensitive grid, and our own implicit understanding of prevalent posting habits, would deem that some information of that nature requires informed consent.

At my own institution there are some changes occurring in regards to ethics clearance, primarily for postgraduate students, as it would appear a large number of them are not aware that their research may need an ethics clearance.  In Australia if research is done without approval from an ethics committee, this does not prevent the student receiving a successful Master of Philosophy or PhD examination. However it does deem their dissertations unpublishable, and thus stalls their hopes of an academic career.  One solution to this is to have new postgraduate students complete an ethics clearance form or provide a written acknowledgement of having read through the form to ensure that if they will be conducting interviews or similar for their research they are aware of what is required of them in terms of the law.

There is also discussion of changes being made to ethics clearances regarding online research. Currently this is not required for type of work I do, but in three to five years that could change, with lurking on forums to be considered worthy of seeking ethics committee approval.  This ultimately has to do with potential changes in Australian law, with which ethics committees in research institutions would have to comply.

While ethics regarding research on the internet has been discussed and methods have been proposed for years, it is still something that is unclear and worked out on a ‘case by case’ basis by ethics boards and committees. Although such research is quite common and the Internet is widely used, online research is relatively new. It is safe to conclude that how to tackle the issue of ethical research online will still take some time, even for those currently engaged in this endeavor.

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:

Lauren Bernauer is a PhD candidate in the Studies in Religion department at the University of Sydney. She completed her MPhil in 2007, writing on the computer game Age of Mythology and its portrayal of pre-Christian religion and deities. Her PhD is continuing this topic, though expanding it to include the young teen novel series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, the computer game World of Warcraft, and the Japanese video game Ōkami.  She has had articles recently published in Brill’s Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (article co-authored with Garry W. Trompf) and Handbook of Hyper-real Religions.


  • Brownlow, C. & O’Dell, L., 2002. Ethical Issues for Qualitative Research in On-line Communities. Disablitiy and Society, 17(6), pp.685–694.
  • Denzin, N.K., 1998. In search of the inner child: Co-dependency and gender in cyberspace. In G. Bendelow & S. J. Williams, eds. Emotions in Social Life: Critical themes and contemporary issues. London: Routledge, pp. 97–119.
  • Elm, M.S., 2008. How Do Various Notions of Privacy Influence Decisions in Qualitative Internet Research. In A. N. Markham & N. K. Baym, eds. Internet Inquiry: Conversations about method. London: Sage, pp. 69–87.
  • McKee, H.A. & Porter, J.E., 2009. The Ethics of Internet Research: A Rhetorical, Case-Based Process, New York: Peter Lang.
  • Schrum, L., 1995. Framing the Debate: Ethical research in the Information age. Qualitative Inquiry, 1, pp.311–326.
  • Sharf, B.F., 1999. Beyond netiquette: the ethics of doing naturalistic discourse research on the Internet. In S. Jones, ed. Doing Internet Research: Critical Issues and Methods for Examining the Net. London: Sage, pp. 243–257.
  • Sveningsson, M., 2004. Ethics in Internet Ethnography. In E. A. Buchanan, ed. Readings in Virtual Research Ethics: Issues and Controversies. London: Information Science Publishing, pp. 45–61.


Getting into Graduate School

The following post was written by contributors, who blogs at A Theory of Mind. Erika  is a graduate student studying social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has an MA in Cognition and Culture from Queen’s University Belfast and a BA in English from the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on religion and self-consciousness, religion as a social identity and moral community, and naturalistic thinking. The guidelines here are quite US-specific, however they are of use to anyone who is considering applying to further their education, and even to those who have already made this decision.

Erika’s work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License, and can be freely distributed provided you acknowledge the source.

Getting into Graduate School

If you applying the graduate school, the first thing you should know about is what exactly goes into an application. Generally speaking, a graduate school application (in the US) consists of the following elements:

1. The application form—General questions (address, etc.) as well as possibly some department-specific questions.

2. A statement of purpose—aka SOP. A 500-1500 word essay describing your background, research interests (for research-based programs), career goals, and fit with the department to which you’re applying. It should be customized to each department.

3. Letters of recommendation—aka LOR. Typically 3, sometimes 2; some schools take more or fewer. You want as many of these to come from professors (as opposed to work supervisors) as possible, preferably ones with whom you have research experience or other outside-the-classroom relationships. Generally speaking, if you have 2 very good ones, the third one can be somewhat weaker.

4. Transcripts—from all post-secondary institutions. Some departments care about your overall GPA; others care more about your final 60 credits. If your transcripts look at all like mine [I got a 1.7 GPA (just about failing for anyone not familiar with the US point system) for my first year, had loads of Fs and course withdrawals, and finally withdrew from school entirely before getting my act together], you may consider putting a paragraph of explanation in your SOP, but be sure not to (a) explain weak performance with reference to a psychological or learning disability (prejudices against these are sadly present in graduate school, even in fields like education and psychology) or (b) appear to be whining or blaming poor performance on anyone other than yourself. Instead, focus on explaining why it could never happen again.

5. GRE score reports—(for US-based institutions) the importance of the GRE differs depending on the program, of course, as does the relative weighting of the subsections. If you don’t like your score, you can retake it, but you can only take the test once during a calendar month, so make sure you take the test at the latest in the month before you absolutely need it, in case you decide to retake. The scores are good for five years. Start studying now, and take as many practice tests as possible.

6. Curriculum vitae—aka CV or vita. Your academic resume. I recommend downloading some faculty CVs from the departments you are applying to. This will give you a sense of what these look like and what goes into them.

Some applications will ask for the following:

7. Writing sample—Generally, you should choose something you’ve turned in for a grade or publication. Preferably, it will be related to the field you are applying to. And, of course, take the time to thoroughly revise it.

8. Personal statement—aka PS. For some applications, this is the same as an SOP; however, others will ask for an SOP and a PS. In this case, the PS is generally used in deciding university-wide fellowship recipients, and it should be more personal than the SOP, focusing on challenges you’ve faced in education and/or membership in groups underrepresented in graduate education.

Generally speaking, the key to graduate admissions is fit—which means roughly that your interests are aligned with those of the department. So start browsing department websites. Get a feel for what the faculty are studying and decide if your interests match those of one or more faculty members. For large departments (such as psych and bio), the faculty are often further partitioned into divisions, and your application may be reviewed solely by the division to which you are applying, in which case you will want to focus on that division. Make a long-ish list of schools and faculty you are interested in, and then make an appointment with one of your professors to discuss that list. People in your field may know what departments tend to have good placement (getting people into jobs they want), have advisors whose students never graduate, etc. You want to know as much of this as possible.

Although I applied to 6 schools during each of my two application cycles, most people I know applied to double that number. This process gets EXPENSIVE. Application fees for US and Canadian schools range from around $50 to $100 each. Some of your undergraduate schools may charge for transcript copies. GRE score reports cost $20 each. It’s not uncommon to spend one to two thousand dollars on the applications. Then, some departments will have on-site interviews or visiting student weekends in the spring, for which some will reimburse travel expenses and other won’t. Depending on your geographic constraints in applications and in your luck in applying to wealthy departments, this could add in even more expense.

Overall, the grad school application process is capricious. Most excellent departments admit something under 10% of applicants; other departments are less selective. But admissions in any given year depend on such completely unknowable (to applicants) factors such as state budgets, the size of last year’s incoming class, the number of students who are leaving the program, the number of grants won by specific faculty members, etc. So getting in is at least as much about uncontrollable departmental factors as it is about being an excellent applicant. I recommend emailing professors you are interested in working with to inquire whether they are taking on new students in the next application cycle, as finding out ahead of time that a professor is not taking on new students will eliminate work and heartbreak spent on an opportunity that never truly existed.


Now that I am a graduate student, I advise many bright, intellectually curious undergraduates who want to go on to graduate school. Over the last few years, I’ve compiled a fairly large number of resources and points of advice that I offer these students. While some of the advice is biased by the particular field (psychology) and degree-type (PhD at a US research intensive institution) I have chosen, I think that there are some common elements that can be adapted to any field.

Here’s an outline of the advice I typically give:

  • Gain as much research experience possible. Both because it is exactly the kind of training you need and because it is the best source of letters of reference. Working in more than one lab with give you a greater diversity of skills and training, and it will also give you multiple recommendation letters.
  • Read scholarly literature in the field that interests you. This will help you narrow down your interests, make you sound more intelligent and informed when speaking with potential advisors, and help you identify potential advisors of interest.
  • Speak to a professor in your intended field about what his or her job is like and what graduate school in that field is like. Similarly, speak a graduate student in your intended field about his or her experiences. Consult with professors and grad students about the schools/advisors you are considering applying to; ask them about who has good placement and whose students never graduate.
  • Email professors you are interested in working with. Tell them you’ve read some of their papers and share some interests. Ask whether they will be taking on new students and what they look for in a graduate student. Your match to an advisor is one of the most important components of your application and of your experience in graduate school, especially for students pursuing a research-oriented degree.
  • Join professional societies and honor societies and take an active role in them. Subscribe to their listservs. This will keep you up to date on the field, provide you with opportunities for extra experience/CV lines (e.g., reviewing submissions for student competitions, competing in those competitions, departmental service, etc.), and make you look engaged. You might also find opportunities for summer research positions or post-graduation jobs advertised on the email lists.
  • Read academic/science blogs or message boards. These will help you understand and navigate academic culture and give you better insight into the variety of experiences of academics. You can find great science blogs through ResearchBlogging, Scientific American, ScienceBlogs, Scientopia, and other science blog networks. You can also learn a lot about academic life in general by reading GradHacker, The Grad Café, GradLand, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  • Take the GRE seriously, if you are applying in the US. Study for a long time. Take lots of practice tests. Many US-based programs have unadvertised GRE cut-off points, or combine GRE with college marks (GPA) to create a composite score with which they rank applicants.
  • Seriously consider if graduate school and an academic career is a good option for you. Graduate school is intense. The academic job market is really tough, and the pressure does not end even if you land a great job at the end. You might be a post-doc or Visiting Assistant Professor before landing a more permanent position, and even once you are on the tenure track, you still have years of fighting for tenure ahead. Download CVs of professors you respect. Look at the number of cities they have lived in during their academic careers and the frequency of their moves. Is that a life that you want? If you are not interested in an academic position, understand that your supervisors in graduate school will have had precious little experience outside of academia that they could use to advise you.
  • Apply for jobs, too. You might not get in. Many students put in two rounds of applications or take a master’s position when they really want a doctoral position.
  • You will likely be rejected; it’s not personal, and it doesn’t mean you are not smart enough or capable enough to complete the program. What I’ve listed above are just the things that you can (more or less) control. There’s a lot that you cannot control, such as departmental funding, grants won by faculty members that might support students, the number of other truly awesome applicants who happen to apply in the same year to the same advisor, the number of students graduating from the program that year.

Of course, I don’t think that my opinions are the only ones prospective graduate students should consider, so I always give them links to lots of other opinions, including the following:

General Resources:

Letters of Recommendation:

If, after all of this, you still want to apply to graduate school: great! It’s a lot of work, but it can be a very rewarding choice. If you are a professor or graduate student who has a different perspective, please chime in! The more information applicants have, the better off they will be.