Posts

Historical Approaches to Studying Religion

As the RSP continues to grow, we’re going to be returning more frequently to topics and themes which have already been touched upon in previous podcasts and features. This week, we are pleased to bring you a double re-post in response to our double podcast with John Wolffe & Ronald Hutton on Historical Approaches to the Study of Religion.

First, in the following podcast – first ‘broadcast’ on 30 April 2012, and later selected as one of our editors’ picks the following summer – Louise Connelly introduces Chris’s interview with Professor Callum Brown. How can we use historical approaches in the study of religion? More specifically, can we use historical approaches to understand why people are losing it? Professor Callum Brown tells us why historical approaches have much to tell us about religious change.

 

Download.

Second, Dr Tim Hutchings – who has also been an interviewee on the RSP, and participated in our ‘Religion in the News Panel Session’ – wrote the following response essay to Professor Brown’s interview. We ‘re-print’ it here in its entirety. We hope you enjoy these different takes on this week’s central theme. If you do, you can subscribe to receive our weekly podcast through iTunes and other portals. You can also use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us when buying your important books, clothes, diving equipment etc.


A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion

By Tim Hutchings, Durham University

In his new podcast for the Religious Studies Project, Callum Brown has given us an excellent introduction to the historical approach to the study of religion. In conversation with Christopher Cotter, Brown outlines rival traditions within the history of religion and demonstrates what each has contributed to our understanding of secularisation. Along the way, Brown summarises his research career and offers some tantalising hints about his current interview-based study of the life stories of people who have left religion. He also emphasises the value of demographics, arguing that sophisticated analyses of census data reveal that people develop ‘an entirely new sense of self’ when they leave religion.  This is a fascinating and challenging claim, but I have chosen to focus in this response on another of the main themes of this podcast: the relationship between history and sociology.

At the end of this interview, Brown distinguishes the history of religion sharply from sociology. According to Brown, there is a “huge gap” in method, approach and interests between the two disciplines. Sociologists, he argues, believe that the world is governed by rules. They undertake research to study the contemporary religious landscape, interpret this snapshot in time by framing it within a particular model of fixed, linear change, and then make predictions about the future. Historians, on the other hand, believe that nothing is inevitable and assume that “when” must be the first step in working out “why”. Instead of collecting snapshots, historians map change year-on-year, using that longitudinal data to establish the effects of key events.

My own field of research is digital religion, an area with a particularly troubled relationship to history. Scholars and commentators interested in digital culture and its significance for religion have struggled to distinguish what is truly new from what has come before, and continue to search for helpful ways to talk about change.

One classic strategy since the 1990s has been to contrast an anecdotal snapshot of contemporary life against visions of the near future and the recent past.  In the most common forms of this argument, the past is characterised by stable local communities, face-to-face relationships and a secure, unchanging personal identity. Contemporary digital technology challenges this stability by supporting fluid, self-determined, global communication networks, so the argument goes, and these changes will intensify in the near future. Different observers have interpreted this same basic approach in positive, neutral and negative ways, seeing technology as the route to new spiritual awareness (Cobb 1998), a powerful tool that can be used to promote an unchanging religious message to the new mission field of digital culture (Estes 2009, Sweet 2012), or a dangerous threat to church, character and society. Sherry Turkle’s recent declaration that social media is facilitating a “flight from conversation” is a good example of this third type (2012). Young people now use their phones a lot, she argues, and they previously spent time face-to-face, and this shift is very bad for everyone. Her argument is simple and intuitively appealing, contrasting a recognisable snapshot of everyday life with a widely-accepted vision of the recent past and calling for immediate action to rescue the future, and her article has provoked much discussion online in recent weeks.

Scholars of media and religion have tried to challenge this approach over the last decade by framing their observations within a more rigorous historical perspective. The forms of religious community observed online are not unique after all, they argue: they actually continue long-running trajectories of social change from groups to networks (Wellman 2012) or from stable to fluid religious identities (Wagner 2012). Heidi Campbell’s recent work (2010) focuses on the power of religious groups to construct and interpret the technology they use, a process that includes engagement with group history. For Campbell, contemporary religious uses of the internet must be interpreted in the context of the theology and values of particular communities, including how those communities have changed their approach to media over time.  Many other scholars have tried to complicate popular understandings of the past and present of media religion, undertaking detailed comparative studies to show that religious authority, community and identity have not changed in the ways some observers allege.

Listening to Callum Brown’s interview, it becomes clear that all of these scholarly approaches represent a distinctively sociological way of using history. These scholars analyse the past to identify long-term trajectories in social or religious change and use that model to interpret the present. “When” questions are rarely considered: the purpose of the exercise is to establish a tension between a stable (or predictably-changing) past and a snapshot of the present, to generate insights into continuity and change.

There is clear scope here for inter-disciplinary collaboration. Sociological interest in the history of religion and media has generated a space for interventions by historians, who can greatly benefit the study of digital culture by offering detailed critiques of our assumed trajectories of change. Recent examples include Jeremy Stolow’s keynote speech on the spirituality of the telegraph, delivered to the Digital Religion conference in Colorado earlier this year (see Stolow 2011), and Stefan Gelfgren’s work (2012) on the history of religious attitudes to media. Sociologists of digital religion are still not as interested in the connection between “when” and “why” as Callum Brown might like, but clear progress is being made to forge connections with historians. This podcast is an excellent provocation to think harder about the questions we overlook and the interdisciplinary conversations that might help us uncover them.

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.

Bibliography

  • Campbell, Heidi. When Religion Meets New Media. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010.
  • Cobb, Jennifer. CyberGrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. New York: Crown, 1998.
  • Estes, Douglas. SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.
  • Gelfgren, Stefan. “Let there be digital networks and God will provide growth?” Comparing the aims and hopes of 19th-century and post-millenial Christianity. In Pauline Hope Cheong, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren and Charles Ess (eds.), Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. p. 227-242.
  • Hogan, Bernie and Barry Wellman. The immanent internet redux. In Pauline Hope Cheong, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren and Charles Ess (eds.), Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. p. 43-62.
  • Stolow, Jeremy. ‘Telegraph’, in freq.uenci.es: a collaborative genealogy of spirituality. September 7 2011. Available online: http://freq.uenci.es/2011/09/07/telegraph/.  Accessed May 2 2012.
  • Sweet, Leonard. Viral: How Social Networking is Poised to Ignite Revival. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2012.
  • Turkle, Sherry. The flight from conversation. New York Times, April 21 2012. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/the-flight-from-conversation.html. Accessed May 2 2012.
  • Wagner, Rachel. Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality. Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.

 

Religion and the News Panel

It goes without saying that ‘religion’ is a topic that frequently finds itself in the media spotlight. Whether we are talking about the recent Boston Marathon bombings, the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, the Arab Spring, or the recent critique of the UK government’s welfare policy levelled by four major British churches, the ways in which the media negotiates, constructs and engages with this complex category has an enormous impact upon public opinion and understanding, and is increasingly relevant to academics, religious practitioners, journalists and the wider public. It was with this in mind that the Religious Studies Project, in collaboration with the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture, presented a panel session at the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference in Durham on 10 April 2013. This panel session brought together Eileen Barker, Tim Hutchings, Christopher Landau and David Wilson, who each have a unique position on this topic by virtue of their positions working with or for the media, to discuss and reflect on a recent edited volume by Jolyon Mitchell and Owen Gower – aptly titled Religion and the News. This podcast presents the edited audio recording of this panel session, and marks a new development for the Religious Studies Project which shall hopefully be employed at future conferences.

You can also download this panel discussion, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc. As a result of this podcast, David Wilson also published a review of the book in the Journal of Religion, Media & Digital Culture.

Religion in the News is an edited volume, published in October 2012 by Ashgate, and edited by Jolyon Mitchell and Owen Gower. Jolyon Mitchell is the Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh, where he is also senior lecturer in Communications, Theology & Ethics, and convenor of the Theology & Ethics subject area. Owen Gower is a Senior Fellow at Cumberland Lodge, an educational charity specializing in cross-sector co-operation and matters affecting the development of society. The book brings together academics, practitioners, and media professionals in a collection of 19 chapters exploring everything form the news coverage of the “Occupy” protests at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, to the representation of Sikhs in the mainstream media, and from the problematic notion of journalistic neutrality, to the problematic definition of religion.

Reflective of this diverse range of perspectives in the book, we brought together four academics who each have a unique position on the contents of the book by virtue of their positions working with or for the media. Their biographies are presented below, in the order in which they speak.

David Gordon Wilson wears many hats. He served as a solicitor, then partner, then managing partner  in Scotland, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Egypt, before returning to university to embark on a Religious Studies degree. His PhD at the University of Edinburgh focused upon spiritualist mediumship as a contemporary form of shamanism, and his monograph has recently been published with Bloomsbury, titled Redefining Shamanisms: Spiritualist Mediums and Other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes. Wearing one of his other hats, David is a practising spiritualist medium and healer, and among his many connected roles, he is currently the President of the Scottish Association of Spiritual Healers.

Christopher Landau studied Theology at Cambridge University before gaining a BBC News traineeship in 2002. He spent eight years at the BBC, working as a radio reporter and television news producer, both in general news journalism and as a specialist covering religion. He was a reporter for Sunday, and then World at One and PM on Radio 4 before being appointed World Service religious affairs correspondent in 2008. In 2010 he left the BBC to begin doctoral studies at Oxford University combined with training for ordination in the Church of England. He is involved with a project to establish a Religion Media Centre, based on the model of the Science Media Centre.

Eileen Barker is Professor Emeritus of Sociology with Special Reference to the Study of Religion at the London School of Economics,University of London. Her main research interests are ‘cults’, ‘sects’ and new religious movements, and changes in the religious situation in post-communist countries. She has over 350 publications (translated into 27 different languages), which include the award-winning The Making of a Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice? and New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction. In the late 1980s, with the support of the British Government and mainstream Churches, she founded INFORM, an educational charity based at the LSE which aims to provide information about minority religions that is as accurate, objective and up-to-date as possible. She is a frequent advisor to governments, other official bodies and law-enforcement agencies throughout the world, has made numerous appearances on television and radio, and has been invited to give guest lectures in over 50 countries.

Tim Hutchings is a sociologist of religion, media and culture, and currently Research Fellow at the Open University. His research interests include digital Christianity, death and media, and the digital humanities. He received his PhD (“Creating Church Online”) from Durham University in 2010 and recently completed a 15-month fellowship at HUMlab digital humanities research laboratory, Umea University, Sweden. His current research focuses on the future of the Bible as a digital text. He is also the editor of the Journal of Religion, Media & Digital Culture.

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.

References:

  • 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.

 

Digital Religion

Second Life, World of Warcraft, over the past few years the internet has seen an explosion of activity in virtual realms. People have taken to creating digital avatars whether its to join in epic fantasy battles or simply to meet other people. And where you find people meeting you’re bound to find religion in the mix. Unlike chatrooms and blog posts where people simply write out their ideas and discuss their beliefs these digital worlds offer a whole new way in which to act out and practice religious beliefs. From meditation sessions, church congregations, to memorial services the range of activities not only matches what can be found in the real world but can exceed it also. The Digital realm opens up a whole new range of possibilities for a person to be religious.

For many of us in the study of religions this may seem like a daunting task. The digital realm is a dark continent in which the standard practices of methodology and theory find themselves tested by a whole new landscape. To introduce us to the vast array of topics Tim Hutchings provides us with an introductory discussion into the world of digital religion. We discuss the ways in which religion is finding itself in the digital realm and how this new format of expression differs from its real world iterations. The digital realm poses a number of interesting challenges to the questions of religious authority and orthodoxy in ways not visible/possible in the real world. Finally we tackle some of the issues that we as researchers must face when we try and study digital religion like the methods of data collection and ethics involved in studying digital avatars.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Tim Hutchings recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the HUMlab digital humanities centre in Umeå, Sweden and has now returned to the UK to join the CODEC research initiative at St John’s College, Durham. Tim is currently working with CODEC to develop a series of digital art exhibitions and installations in response to the Lindisfarne Gospels. His PhD thesis (Durham University, 2010) was an ethnographic study of five online Christian churches, focusing on the relationship between online and offline religion. Research interests include e-vangelism, online Christian storytelling, the future of the Bible as a digital sacred text and the role of new media in death and mourning. Tim has also written for us before responding to Callum Brown, you can find his article which also discusses Digital Religion here.

A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion, by Tim Hutchings

A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion

By Tim Hutchings, Durham University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 4 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Callum Brown on Historical Approaches to (Losing) Religion (30 April 2012). For a more ‘informal’ response, you can listen to our roundtable discussion session on the question Can We Trust the Social Sciences?.

In his new podcast for the Religious Studies Project, Callum Brown has given us an excellent introduction to the historical approach to the study of religion. In conversation with Christopher Cotter, Brown outlines rival traditions within the history of religion and demonstrates what each has contributed to our understanding of secularisation. Along the way, Brown summarises his research career and offers some tantalising hints about his current interview-based study of the life stories of people who have left religion. He also emphasises the value of demographics, arguing that sophisticated analyses of census data reveal that people develop ‘an entirely new sense of self’ when they leave religion.  This is a fascinating and challenging claim, but I have chosen to focus in this response on another of the main themes of this podcast: the relationship between history and sociology.

At the end of this interview, Brown distinguishes the history of religion sharply from sociology. According to Brown, there is a “huge gap” in method, approach and interests between the two disciplines. Sociologists, he argues, believe that the world is governed by rules. They undertake research to study the contemporary religious landscape, interpret this snapshot in time by framing it within a particular model of fixed, linear change, and then make predictions about the future. Historians, on the other hand, believe that nothing is inevitable and assume that “when” must be the first step in working out “why”. Instead of collecting snapshots, historians map change year-on-year, using that longitudinal data to establish the effects of key events.

My own field of research is digital religion, an area with a particularly troubled relationship to history. Scholars and commentators interested in digital culture and its significance for religion have struggled to distinguish what is truly new from what has come before, and continue to search for helpful ways to talk about change.

One classic strategy since the 1990s has been to contrast an anecdotal snapshot of contemporary life against visions of the near future and the recent past.  In the most common forms of this argument, the past is characterised by stable local communities, face-to-face relationships and a secure, unchanging personal identity. Contemporary digital technology challenges this stability by supporting fluid, self-determined, global communication networks, so the argument goes, and these changes will intensify in the near future. Different observers have interpreted this same basic approach in positive, neutral and negative ways, seeing technology as the route to new spiritual awareness (Cobb 1998), a powerful tool that can be used to promote an unchanging religious message to the new mission field of digital culture (Estes 2009, Sweet 2012), or a dangerous threat to church, character and society. Sherry Turkle’s recent declaration that social media is facilitating a “flight from conversation” is a good example of this third type (2012). Young people now use their phones a lot, she argues, and they previously spent time face-to-face, and this shift is very bad for everyone. Her argument is simple and intuitively appealing, contrasting a recognisable snapshot of everyday life with a widely-accepted vision of the recent past and calling for immediate action to rescue the future, and her article has provoked much discussion online in recent weeks.

Scholars of media and religion have tried to challenge this approach over the last decade by framing their observations within a more rigorous historical perspective. The forms of religious community observed online are not unique after all, they argue: they actually continue long-running trajectories of social change from groups to networks (Wellman 2012) or from stable to fluid religious identities (Wagner 2012). Heidi Campbell’s recent work (2010) focuses on the power of religious groups to construct and interpret the technology they use, a process that includes engagement with group history. For Campbell, contemporary religious uses of the internet must be interpreted in the context of the theology and values of particular communities, including how those communities have changed their approach to media over time.  Many other scholars have tried to complicate popular understandings of the past and present of media religion, undertaking detailed comparative studies to show that religious authority, community and identity have not changed in the ways some observers allege.

Listening to Callum Brown’s interview, it becomes clear that all of these scholarly approaches represent a distinctively sociological way of using history. These scholars analyse the past to identify long-term trajectories in social or religious change and use that model to interpret the present. “When” questions are rarely considered: the purpose of the exercise is to establish a tension between a stable (or predictably-changing) past and a snapshot of the present, to generate insights into continuity and change.

There is clear scope here for inter-disciplinary collaboration. Sociological interest in the history of religion and media has generated a space for interventions by historians, who can greatly benefit the study of digital culture by offering detailed critiques of our assumed trajectories of change. Recent examples include Jeremy Stolow’s keynote speech on the spirituality of the telegraph, delivered to the Digital Religion conference in Colorado earlier this year (see Stolow 2011), and Stefan Gelfgren’s work (2012) on the history of religious attitudes to media. Sociologists of digital religion are still not as interested in the connection between “when” and “why” as Callum Brown might like, but clear progress is being made to forge connections with historians. This podcast is an excellent provocation to think harder about the questions we overlook and the interdisciplinary conversations that might help us uncover them.

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

Tim Hutchings recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the HUMlab digital humanities centre in Umeå, Sweden and has now returned to the UK to join the CODEC research initiative at St John’s College, Durham. Tim is currently working with CODEC to develop a series of digital art exhibitions and installations in response to the Lindisfarne Gospels. His PhD thesis (Durham University, 2010) was an ethnographic study of five online Christian churches, focusing on the relationship between online and offline religion. Research interests include e-vangelism, online Christian storytelling, the future of the Bible as a digital sacred text and the role of new media in death and mourning.

Bibliography

Campbell, Heidi. When Religion Meets New Media. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010.

Cobb, Jennifer. CyberGrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. New York: Crown, 1998.

Estes, Douglas. SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Gelfgren, Stefan. “Let there be digital networks and God will provide growth?” Comparing the aims and hopes of 19th-century and post-millenial Christianity. In Pauline Hope Cheong, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren and Charles Ess (eds.), Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. p. 227-242.

Hogan, Bernie and Barry Wellman. The immanent internet redux. In Pauline Hope Cheong, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren and Charles Ess (eds.), Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. p. 43-62.

Stolow, Jeremy. ‘Telegraph’, in freq.uenci.es: a collaborative genealogy of spirituality. September 7 2011. Available online: http://freq.uenci.es/2011/09/07/telegraph/.  Accessed May 2 2012.

Sweet, Leonard. Viral: How Social Networking is Poised to Ignite Revival. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2012.

Turkle, Sherry. The flight from conversation. New York Times, April 21 2012. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/the-flight-from-conversation.html. Accessed May 2 2012.

Wagner, Rachel. Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality. Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.

 

Podcasts

Historical Approaches to Studying Religion

As the RSP continues to grow, we’re going to be returning more frequently to topics and themes which have already been touched upon in previous podcasts and features. This week, we are pleased to bring you a double re-post in response to our double podcast with John Wolffe & Ronald Hutton on Historical Approaches to the Study of Religion.

First, in the following podcast – first ‘broadcast’ on 30 April 2012, and later selected as one of our editors’ picks the following summer – Louise Connelly introduces Chris’s interview with Professor Callum Brown. How can we use historical approaches in the study of religion? More specifically, can we use historical approaches to understand why people are losing it? Professor Callum Brown tells us why historical approaches have much to tell us about religious change.

 

Download.

Second, Dr Tim Hutchings – who has also been an interviewee on the RSP, and participated in our ‘Religion in the News Panel Session’ – wrote the following response essay to Professor Brown’s interview. We ‘re-print’ it here in its entirety. We hope you enjoy these different takes on this week’s central theme. If you do, you can subscribe to receive our weekly podcast through iTunes and other portals. You can also use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us when buying your important books, clothes, diving equipment etc.


A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion

By Tim Hutchings, Durham University

In his new podcast for the Religious Studies Project, Callum Brown has given us an excellent introduction to the historical approach to the study of religion. In conversation with Christopher Cotter, Brown outlines rival traditions within the history of religion and demonstrates what each has contributed to our understanding of secularisation. Along the way, Brown summarises his research career and offers some tantalising hints about his current interview-based study of the life stories of people who have left religion. He also emphasises the value of demographics, arguing that sophisticated analyses of census data reveal that people develop ‘an entirely new sense of self’ when they leave religion.  This is a fascinating and challenging claim, but I have chosen to focus in this response on another of the main themes of this podcast: the relationship between history and sociology.

At the end of this interview, Brown distinguishes the history of religion sharply from sociology. According to Brown, there is a “huge gap” in method, approach and interests between the two disciplines. Sociologists, he argues, believe that the world is governed by rules. They undertake research to study the contemporary religious landscape, interpret this snapshot in time by framing it within a particular model of fixed, linear change, and then make predictions about the future. Historians, on the other hand, believe that nothing is inevitable and assume that “when” must be the first step in working out “why”. Instead of collecting snapshots, historians map change year-on-year, using that longitudinal data to establish the effects of key events.

My own field of research is digital religion, an area with a particularly troubled relationship to history. Scholars and commentators interested in digital culture and its significance for religion have struggled to distinguish what is truly new from what has come before, and continue to search for helpful ways to talk about change.

One classic strategy since the 1990s has been to contrast an anecdotal snapshot of contemporary life against visions of the near future and the recent past.  In the most common forms of this argument, the past is characterised by stable local communities, face-to-face relationships and a secure, unchanging personal identity. Contemporary digital technology challenges this stability by supporting fluid, self-determined, global communication networks, so the argument goes, and these changes will intensify in the near future. Different observers have interpreted this same basic approach in positive, neutral and negative ways, seeing technology as the route to new spiritual awareness (Cobb 1998), a powerful tool that can be used to promote an unchanging religious message to the new mission field of digital culture (Estes 2009, Sweet 2012), or a dangerous threat to church, character and society. Sherry Turkle’s recent declaration that social media is facilitating a “flight from conversation” is a good example of this third type (2012). Young people now use their phones a lot, she argues, and they previously spent time face-to-face, and this shift is very bad for everyone. Her argument is simple and intuitively appealing, contrasting a recognisable snapshot of everyday life with a widely-accepted vision of the recent past and calling for immediate action to rescue the future, and her article has provoked much discussion online in recent weeks.

Scholars of media and religion have tried to challenge this approach over the last decade by framing their observations within a more rigorous historical perspective. The forms of religious community observed online are not unique after all, they argue: they actually continue long-running trajectories of social change from groups to networks (Wellman 2012) or from stable to fluid religious identities (Wagner 2012). Heidi Campbell’s recent work (2010) focuses on the power of religious groups to construct and interpret the technology they use, a process that includes engagement with group history. For Campbell, contemporary religious uses of the internet must be interpreted in the context of the theology and values of particular communities, including how those communities have changed their approach to media over time.  Many other scholars have tried to complicate popular understandings of the past and present of media religion, undertaking detailed comparative studies to show that religious authority, community and identity have not changed in the ways some observers allege.

Listening to Callum Brown’s interview, it becomes clear that all of these scholarly approaches represent a distinctively sociological way of using history. These scholars analyse the past to identify long-term trajectories in social or religious change and use that model to interpret the present. “When” questions are rarely considered: the purpose of the exercise is to establish a tension between a stable (or predictably-changing) past and a snapshot of the present, to generate insights into continuity and change.

There is clear scope here for inter-disciplinary collaboration. Sociological interest in the history of religion and media has generated a space for interventions by historians, who can greatly benefit the study of digital culture by offering detailed critiques of our assumed trajectories of change. Recent examples include Jeremy Stolow’s keynote speech on the spirituality of the telegraph, delivered to the Digital Religion conference in Colorado earlier this year (see Stolow 2011), and Stefan Gelfgren’s work (2012) on the history of religious attitudes to media. Sociologists of digital religion are still not as interested in the connection between “when” and “why” as Callum Brown might like, but clear progress is being made to forge connections with historians. This podcast is an excellent provocation to think harder about the questions we overlook and the interdisciplinary conversations that might help us uncover them.

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.

Bibliography

  • Campbell, Heidi. When Religion Meets New Media. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010.
  • Cobb, Jennifer. CyberGrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. New York: Crown, 1998.
  • Estes, Douglas. SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.
  • Gelfgren, Stefan. “Let there be digital networks and God will provide growth?” Comparing the aims and hopes of 19th-century and post-millenial Christianity. In Pauline Hope Cheong, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren and Charles Ess (eds.), Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. p. 227-242.
  • Hogan, Bernie and Barry Wellman. The immanent internet redux. In Pauline Hope Cheong, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren and Charles Ess (eds.), Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. p. 43-62.
  • Stolow, Jeremy. ‘Telegraph’, in freq.uenci.es: a collaborative genealogy of spirituality. September 7 2011. Available online: http://freq.uenci.es/2011/09/07/telegraph/.  Accessed May 2 2012.
  • Sweet, Leonard. Viral: How Social Networking is Poised to Ignite Revival. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2012.
  • Turkle, Sherry. The flight from conversation. New York Times, April 21 2012. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/the-flight-from-conversation.html. Accessed May 2 2012.
  • Wagner, Rachel. Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality. Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.

 

Religion and the News Panel

It goes without saying that ‘religion’ is a topic that frequently finds itself in the media spotlight. Whether we are talking about the recent Boston Marathon bombings, the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, the Arab Spring, or the recent critique of the UK government’s welfare policy levelled by four major British churches, the ways in which the media negotiates, constructs and engages with this complex category has an enormous impact upon public opinion and understanding, and is increasingly relevant to academics, religious practitioners, journalists and the wider public. It was with this in mind that the Religious Studies Project, in collaboration with the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture, presented a panel session at the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference in Durham on 10 April 2013. This panel session brought together Eileen Barker, Tim Hutchings, Christopher Landau and David Wilson, who each have a unique position on this topic by virtue of their positions working with or for the media, to discuss and reflect on a recent edited volume by Jolyon Mitchell and Owen Gower – aptly titled Religion and the News. This podcast presents the edited audio recording of this panel session, and marks a new development for the Religious Studies Project which shall hopefully be employed at future conferences.

You can also download this panel discussion, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc. As a result of this podcast, David Wilson also published a review of the book in the Journal of Religion, Media & Digital Culture.

Religion in the News is an edited volume, published in October 2012 by Ashgate, and edited by Jolyon Mitchell and Owen Gower. Jolyon Mitchell is the Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh, where he is also senior lecturer in Communications, Theology & Ethics, and convenor of the Theology & Ethics subject area. Owen Gower is a Senior Fellow at Cumberland Lodge, an educational charity specializing in cross-sector co-operation and matters affecting the development of society. The book brings together academics, practitioners, and media professionals in a collection of 19 chapters exploring everything form the news coverage of the “Occupy” protests at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, to the representation of Sikhs in the mainstream media, and from the problematic notion of journalistic neutrality, to the problematic definition of religion.

Reflective of this diverse range of perspectives in the book, we brought together four academics who each have a unique position on the contents of the book by virtue of their positions working with or for the media. Their biographies are presented below, in the order in which they speak.

David Gordon Wilson wears many hats. He served as a solicitor, then partner, then managing partner  in Scotland, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Egypt, before returning to university to embark on a Religious Studies degree. His PhD at the University of Edinburgh focused upon spiritualist mediumship as a contemporary form of shamanism, and his monograph has recently been published with Bloomsbury, titled Redefining Shamanisms: Spiritualist Mediums and Other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes. Wearing one of his other hats, David is a practising spiritualist medium and healer, and among his many connected roles, he is currently the President of the Scottish Association of Spiritual Healers.

Christopher Landau studied Theology at Cambridge University before gaining a BBC News traineeship in 2002. He spent eight years at the BBC, working as a radio reporter and television news producer, both in general news journalism and as a specialist covering religion. He was a reporter for Sunday, and then World at One and PM on Radio 4 before being appointed World Service religious affairs correspondent in 2008. In 2010 he left the BBC to begin doctoral studies at Oxford University combined with training for ordination in the Church of England. He is involved with a project to establish a Religion Media Centre, based on the model of the Science Media Centre.

Eileen Barker is Professor Emeritus of Sociology with Special Reference to the Study of Religion at the London School of Economics,University of London. Her main research interests are ‘cults’, ‘sects’ and new religious movements, and changes in the religious situation in post-communist countries. She has over 350 publications (translated into 27 different languages), which include the award-winning The Making of a Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice? and New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction. In the late 1980s, with the support of the British Government and mainstream Churches, she founded INFORM, an educational charity based at the LSE which aims to provide information about minority religions that is as accurate, objective and up-to-date as possible. She is a frequent advisor to governments, other official bodies and law-enforcement agencies throughout the world, has made numerous appearances on television and radio, and has been invited to give guest lectures in over 50 countries.

Tim Hutchings is a sociologist of religion, media and culture, and currently Research Fellow at the Open University. His research interests include digital Christianity, death and media, and the digital humanities. He received his PhD (“Creating Church Online”) from Durham University in 2010 and recently completed a 15-month fellowship at HUMlab digital humanities research laboratory, Umea University, Sweden. His current research focuses on the future of the Bible as a digital text. He is also the editor of the Journal of Religion, Media & Digital Culture.

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.

References:

  • 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.

 

Digital Religion

Second Life, World of Warcraft, over the past few years the internet has seen an explosion of activity in virtual realms. People have taken to creating digital avatars whether its to join in epic fantasy battles or simply to meet other people. And where you find people meeting you’re bound to find religion in the mix. Unlike chatrooms and blog posts where people simply write out their ideas and discuss their beliefs these digital worlds offer a whole new way in which to act out and practice religious beliefs. From meditation sessions, church congregations, to memorial services the range of activities not only matches what can be found in the real world but can exceed it also. The Digital realm opens up a whole new range of possibilities for a person to be religious.

For many of us in the study of religions this may seem like a daunting task. The digital realm is a dark continent in which the standard practices of methodology and theory find themselves tested by a whole new landscape. To introduce us to the vast array of topics Tim Hutchings provides us with an introductory discussion into the world of digital religion. We discuss the ways in which religion is finding itself in the digital realm and how this new format of expression differs from its real world iterations. The digital realm poses a number of interesting challenges to the questions of religious authority and orthodoxy in ways not visible/possible in the real world. Finally we tackle some of the issues that we as researchers must face when we try and study digital religion like the methods of data collection and ethics involved in studying digital avatars.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Tim Hutchings recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the HUMlab digital humanities centre in Umeå, Sweden and has now returned to the UK to join the CODEC research initiative at St John’s College, Durham. Tim is currently working with CODEC to develop a series of digital art exhibitions and installations in response to the Lindisfarne Gospels. His PhD thesis (Durham University, 2010) was an ethnographic study of five online Christian churches, focusing on the relationship between online and offline religion. Research interests include e-vangelism, online Christian storytelling, the future of the Bible as a digital sacred text and the role of new media in death and mourning. Tim has also written for us before responding to Callum Brown, you can find his article which also discusses Digital Religion here.

A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion, by Tim Hutchings

A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion

By Tim Hutchings, Durham University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 4 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Callum Brown on Historical Approaches to (Losing) Religion (30 April 2012). For a more ‘informal’ response, you can listen to our roundtable discussion session on the question Can We Trust the Social Sciences?.

In his new podcast for the Religious Studies Project, Callum Brown has given us an excellent introduction to the historical approach to the study of religion. In conversation with Christopher Cotter, Brown outlines rival traditions within the history of religion and demonstrates what each has contributed to our understanding of secularisation. Along the way, Brown summarises his research career and offers some tantalising hints about his current interview-based study of the life stories of people who have left religion. He also emphasises the value of demographics, arguing that sophisticated analyses of census data reveal that people develop ‘an entirely new sense of self’ when they leave religion.  This is a fascinating and challenging claim, but I have chosen to focus in this response on another of the main themes of this podcast: the relationship between history and sociology.

At the end of this interview, Brown distinguishes the history of religion sharply from sociology. According to Brown, there is a “huge gap” in method, approach and interests between the two disciplines. Sociologists, he argues, believe that the world is governed by rules. They undertake research to study the contemporary religious landscape, interpret this snapshot in time by framing it within a particular model of fixed, linear change, and then make predictions about the future. Historians, on the other hand, believe that nothing is inevitable and assume that “when” must be the first step in working out “why”. Instead of collecting snapshots, historians map change year-on-year, using that longitudinal data to establish the effects of key events.

My own field of research is digital religion, an area with a particularly troubled relationship to history. Scholars and commentators interested in digital culture and its significance for religion have struggled to distinguish what is truly new from what has come before, and continue to search for helpful ways to talk about change.

One classic strategy since the 1990s has been to contrast an anecdotal snapshot of contemporary life against visions of the near future and the recent past.  In the most common forms of this argument, the past is characterised by stable local communities, face-to-face relationships and a secure, unchanging personal identity. Contemporary digital technology challenges this stability by supporting fluid, self-determined, global communication networks, so the argument goes, and these changes will intensify in the near future. Different observers have interpreted this same basic approach in positive, neutral and negative ways, seeing technology as the route to new spiritual awareness (Cobb 1998), a powerful tool that can be used to promote an unchanging religious message to the new mission field of digital culture (Estes 2009, Sweet 2012), or a dangerous threat to church, character and society. Sherry Turkle’s recent declaration that social media is facilitating a “flight from conversation” is a good example of this third type (2012). Young people now use their phones a lot, she argues, and they previously spent time face-to-face, and this shift is very bad for everyone. Her argument is simple and intuitively appealing, contrasting a recognisable snapshot of everyday life with a widely-accepted vision of the recent past and calling for immediate action to rescue the future, and her article has provoked much discussion online in recent weeks.

Scholars of media and religion have tried to challenge this approach over the last decade by framing their observations within a more rigorous historical perspective. The forms of religious community observed online are not unique after all, they argue: they actually continue long-running trajectories of social change from groups to networks (Wellman 2012) or from stable to fluid religious identities (Wagner 2012). Heidi Campbell’s recent work (2010) focuses on the power of religious groups to construct and interpret the technology they use, a process that includes engagement with group history. For Campbell, contemporary religious uses of the internet must be interpreted in the context of the theology and values of particular communities, including how those communities have changed their approach to media over time.  Many other scholars have tried to complicate popular understandings of the past and present of media religion, undertaking detailed comparative studies to show that religious authority, community and identity have not changed in the ways some observers allege.

Listening to Callum Brown’s interview, it becomes clear that all of these scholarly approaches represent a distinctively sociological way of using history. These scholars analyse the past to identify long-term trajectories in social or religious change and use that model to interpret the present. “When” questions are rarely considered: the purpose of the exercise is to establish a tension between a stable (or predictably-changing) past and a snapshot of the present, to generate insights into continuity and change.

There is clear scope here for inter-disciplinary collaboration. Sociological interest in the history of religion and media has generated a space for interventions by historians, who can greatly benefit the study of digital culture by offering detailed critiques of our assumed trajectories of change. Recent examples include Jeremy Stolow’s keynote speech on the spirituality of the telegraph, delivered to the Digital Religion conference in Colorado earlier this year (see Stolow 2011), and Stefan Gelfgren’s work (2012) on the history of religious attitudes to media. Sociologists of digital religion are still not as interested in the connection between “when” and “why” as Callum Brown might like, but clear progress is being made to forge connections with historians. This podcast is an excellent provocation to think harder about the questions we overlook and the interdisciplinary conversations that might help us uncover them.

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

Tim Hutchings recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the HUMlab digital humanities centre in Umeå, Sweden and has now returned to the UK to join the CODEC research initiative at St John’s College, Durham. Tim is currently working with CODEC to develop a series of digital art exhibitions and installations in response to the Lindisfarne Gospels. His PhD thesis (Durham University, 2010) was an ethnographic study of five online Christian churches, focusing on the relationship between online and offline religion. Research interests include e-vangelism, online Christian storytelling, the future of the Bible as a digital sacred text and the role of new media in death and mourning.

Bibliography

Campbell, Heidi. When Religion Meets New Media. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010.

Cobb, Jennifer. CyberGrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. New York: Crown, 1998.

Estes, Douglas. SimChurch: Being the Church in the Virtual World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.

Gelfgren, Stefan. “Let there be digital networks and God will provide growth?” Comparing the aims and hopes of 19th-century and post-millenial Christianity. In Pauline Hope Cheong, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren and Charles Ess (eds.), Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. p. 227-242.

Hogan, Bernie and Barry Wellman. The immanent internet redux. In Pauline Hope Cheong, Peter Fischer-Nielsen, Stefan Gelfgren and Charles Ess (eds.), Digital Religion, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Futures. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. p. 43-62.

Stolow, Jeremy. ‘Telegraph’, in freq.uenci.es: a collaborative genealogy of spirituality. September 7 2011. Available online: http://freq.uenci.es/2011/09/07/telegraph/.  Accessed May 2 2012.

Sweet, Leonard. Viral: How Social Networking is Poised to Ignite Revival. Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2012.

Turkle, Sherry. The flight from conversation. New York Times, April 21 2012. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/the-flight-from-conversation.html. Accessed May 2 2012.

Wagner, Rachel. Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality. Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.