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Innovative Methods in the Study of Religion

Innovative Methods in the Study of Religion

02 August 10

29-30th March 2010, Dexter House, Royal Mint, London

The study of religion is not a discipline with defined methodological boundaries. It is a multidisciplinary subject area and the changing social location of religion requires us to combine, modify and reinvent our tools, giving us the power to do and see fresh things. No one can cover all bases hence we have to be aware of what others are doing and open to learning from them in this collective enterprise.

Here is a summary of key points and innovations which arose from the presentations and discussion at the conference, moving from broader issues to more specific methods. Click here to access the conference programme and abstracts.

Conceiving Religion

Inevitably the issue of defining religion was frequently raised at the conference. It was clear that it can elicit more emotive reactions than other objects of study. Papers considered shifting concepts of religion, and what or who is excluded from or included within the category ‘religion’.

 These questions could not be detached from consideration of religion’s changing forms and social location. Religion does not only take bounded, institutional forms, and identifying and accessing differing forms requires adaptation and innovation. We heard about continuing work investigating the cognate notion of spirituality, and there was more than one call for more research into atheism, secularism and non-religion, as well as religion.

The necessary connection between theory and method was emphasized. Many people expressed the sense that classic modernization theory is wrong, and that religion’s social significance does not inevitably decline with modernization. Nonetheless, changing economic and political factors influence the shape and location of religion, and call for new methods.


Whatever our approach, we all have agendas, values and emotions which we bring to research. Yet these are not beyond reason and do not necessarily discredit research. It is appropriate – and inevitable – that we maintain a normative stance, as long as this is interrogated, articulated and scrutinised in light of evidence. We have to recognise our power as researchers and not simply impose labels upon people, which they may be unwilling to accept, and which have the effect of silencing them. Sensitivity to and critique of power relations is vital.

Funding structures and audiences obviously affect research, but impact is not necessarily a dirty word. If requirements of dissemination shape the approach taken, then this can be made explicit. Academic engagement with policy makers about religion in the UK is increasingly common, but specialist researchers are not very experienced in dealing with it. Trying to communicate the complex reality to an audience required to act quickly politically can be frustrating for both parties, requires perseverance, but is worthwhile. One presenter commented that if your research report annoys all interested parties a bit then you’ve probably got it right; but if it does not have something constructive to offer, it will be ignored.

Ethical Considerations

Ethical considerations are tied up with agendas and power. As researchers we have a primary duty to respondents, to protect their well being and anonymity (if required). We heard about sensitive research with hard to reach and vulnerable people. Such research may be particularly challenging, practically and ethically, but the socially excluded still deserve to have a voice and representation to different audiences. We always have to pay attention to data security, legal considerations, and the impact of our presence in research situations. The explosion of online activity and hence research provokes new challenges in this regard. Sensitive data ought to be encrypted and ongoing feedback to respondents, e.g. in the form of focus groups, checks and informs research and can empower respondents.

Combination and Comparison

The variety of work presented at the conference should already be apparent. What also became apparent was the amount of mixed methods and comparative research related to religion currently being conducted, and that working in a cross/multi/inter/postdisciplinary fashion is gaining in popularity. Such work provides the opportunity to answer a broader set of questions, and can lead to productive dialogue. No single discipline has all the answers or can singlehandedly grasp the diversity and complexity of religion.  Nonetheless, we have to take care to ensure that work is genuinely comparative across contexts, with the same methods applied in each and terms understood similarly. Regular meetings and discussions in crossdisciplinary teams help test assumptions, methods and findings.

Integrating Historical Research

One discipline which was shown to have a lot to contribute to wider research, and much to gain from it, is History. The conference included a submitted panel with the above title. Making claims about social change (and continuity) demands in depth understanding of the past, hence the importance of qualitative longitudinal work was highlighted. It can be difficult for historians to engage with contemporary issues without oversimplifying research. There is a popular appetite for local history and religious groups have an interest in learning more about their own history, so there is much scope for engagement. Yet, such knowledge transfer is burgeoning and its purposes are debated. History is not neutral, and questions of epistemology and stance apply to it as much as social sciences.

Space and Place

Human geographers seem to be increasingly interested in religion and this has led to a growing emphasis upon space as well as history, not simply the physical space you inhabit, but the social structures affecting that space. Intensified transnational communication and migration is demanding greater understanding of the networks of relationships between contexts, and focus upon space can help investigate such networks, negotiating the balance between the global and the local. The metaphor of ‘social topographies’ and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are approaches being newly applied in the study of religion, mapping patterns of social life and change.

Embodiment and Lived Religion

Increasing attention is being paid to religious embodiment and how religion is practiced in daily lives. Interviews and surveys are popular methods in the study of religion, but can abstract people’s religiosity by representing it as a stable, coherent set of statements rather than a changeable, potentially inconsistent part of everyday life. Papers at the conference showed that paying greater attention in interviews to people’s felt sense and nuances of discourse, and integration of linguistic and psychological research, can lead to better representation of messy reality.

Visual Methods and Material Culture

We heard from several researchers employing visual methods. Research using the method of photo elicitation in order to spark conversation with respondents, potentially drawing out different kinds of responses around issues people may not be used to talking about, e.g. the sacred, was presented. Projects have also involved participants in the production of research materials: training them to take high quality photographs or shoot their own videos and analyse these. This can also empower respondents, especially young people, and help them gain an extra skill in the process.

Scholars are gaining new insights through focus on material and popular culture. Looking at the historical and contemporary production and reception of cultural artefacts teaches us new things about religious understandings and practices in context and prompts further questions about the definition and changing location of religion.

Multimedia Research and Dissemination

This approach is very much related to the previous one. The impact of cyberspace has already been mentioned. It is influencing production, reception and perceptions of religion and being used increasingly as a research tool. Social networking sites can be harnessed as a way to reach young people, especially for research on sensitive subjects. Online surveys and user-generated video research gather data in a manner more familiar to young people than a one to one recorded interview or paper survey. Online surveys are cheaper and data are much more easily processed from them. However, there is less flexibility in how participants complete them and securing a reliable and/or representative sample can be much more difficult. There remain many people without internet access in the UK today.

We heard about exciting new research developing software for the capture and analysis of video data, and the new British Religion in Numbers website was launched at the conference. This is now the single largest source for information about numerical data on religion in Britain across time. Its comprehensive catalogue of resources, graphs, links and analysis are making such data accessible to a wider audience, and highlighting research gaps which need to be filled.


The kinds of questions we ask in research should determine which methods will be appropriate. Old battles between quantitative and qualitative methods are over, and researchers agreed that either or both should be employed, as appropriate to a particular question. It is promising that there is an increasing array of tools for those researching religion to choose from. Historic global social and cultural change and the variety and complexity of lived religion today are demanding new approaches, and researchers are meeting this challenge head on. We cannot just apply existing methods uncritically. Reflection upon methodology is not only happening in the sociological, psychological and anthropological study of religion, but also historical and theological. There is new cooperation across methods and disciplines to generate original research. The conference showed how helpful it is to discuss the study of religion in practice, rather than only in theory and as an ideal.

An edited volume and journal special issues will be produced from this conference, and will present its conclusions in greater detail. 

Report written by Rebecca Catto, edited by Linda Woodhead and Roger Hewitt.

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