Explanation of Study
The field study requires you to study a religious congregation, social religious phenomenon, or religiously based service organization. The method of investigation is participant observation and should include interviews with selected members and clergy of the group you are studying. Although you may wish to consult wesites or journal articles and books written about the group or social religious phenomenon you have chosen to study, this is primarily a field study and not a library research paper.
Your immediate task is to identify a particular religious group or phenomenon to study. You are not to study, for example, “Methodism” or “The History of Irish Catholics in America.” Instead, you are to study a specific congregation (e.g., Seal Beach Church of Religious Science), social religious phenomenon (e.g., street preachers in Long Beach), or religiously-based service organization (Long Beach Rescue Mission).
The methodological guide for the field study is Miller and Selzer’sResearch and Field Work in Religious Studies. The book is optional, but highly recommended.
The Social Scientific Perspective
The primary focus of your research must be upon what the people you are studying think and feel about religion, and how religion functions in their lives and in society more generally — not upon the truth or falsity of their religious beliefs. Debate over questions of religious truth must be left to philosophers and theologians — this field project is a study which must bring into play the methods and insights of the phenomenology of religion and the social psychology and sociology of religion which are presented in class and in your readings.
A social scientific approach to religion “brackets” the truth claims of religion and inquires into what people believe and why they believe it, as well as how these beliefs function in the daily lives of people and in the practice of their religion. Whether these beliefs have any final correspondence to “ultimate reality” is a question that lies beyond the province of an academic course on religion. What scholars acknowledge, instead, is that even the “craziest” beliefs express and mediate some human need.
In your field study, you are asked to take a phenomenological approach to the study of religious beliefs and behavior. The essence of the phenomenological perspective is to seek to understand the subjective experience of those you are studying, to understand how they make sense of the world. To do this, you must lay aside your own biases about the world and instead step inside the lived experience of those whom you are observing. This does not mean that you should convert to their perspective (or “go native”). It does mean that you should have a respectful attitude, seeking to understand how and why their religious commitments make sense to them.
One thing will soon become apparent to you as you do this field study: not all Mormons, Presbyterians or Jews believe the same thing. Congregations within the same denomination may have very different interpretations of the religious life, and within a single congregation there may also be great diversity of opinion.
Selecting a Group to Study
It is best to not study a religious group you are formally associated with unless for reasons of personal religious principle you may not visit other religious groups. Often, an “outsider” will notice things that an “insider” will miss because they seem so ordinary and routine. These ordinary beliefs and rituals may be among some of the most interesting characteristics of the group, and if you miss them because of your prior association with the group, you will be working in this project with a decided handicap. Too, this course intends to introduce you to a wide range of religious groups and phenomena — for this reason, too, I prefer you choose a religious group other than your own to study.
“Entering” a Group
When you have selected a group, you must attend a worship service or other meeting. Call in advance of attending to double-check meeting times and get some initial information about the group. You will probably not need permission to attend a religious service. Dress appropriately and arrive ten to fifteen minutes before the service. This will give you the chance to walk around the building, pick up some free literature (if it is available), and perhaps talk to a few of the people who are gathering (an usher is always a good bet). Many churches, temples, synagogues and mosques make a special effort to greet newcomers and you may be asked to wear a ribbon or pin to identify you as a visitor.
After meeting the group at least once, and having decided this is the group you wish to study, you should make an appointment to talk to one of the clergy or staff. This is more easily done than you might imagine. Simply call the office and say something like this:
“Hello, I’m a student and this semester I am taking a religious studies course in which one of my assignments is to visit a religious group and find out as much as possible about it. I visited your church/temple/synagogue/mosque last week and found it very interesting. Would it be possible to set up an appointment to talk with someone on your staff about your group? If possible, I’d like to talk to the priest/rabbi/minister/mullah/swami, although I realize she/he may be very busy.”
If time is short for the staff person you would like to talk to, mention that you won’t need more than half an hour. In response to an inquiry like this, you will almost always be granted an interview. Try to complete the interview as soon as possible after your first visit.
Arrive at the interview with a list of questions that you would like to ask. Questions should be geared to the particular group you visit, but here are a few suggestions for more general questions:
1. How long have you been the spiritual leader of this religious group?
2. Would you give me a brief history of your group? When was it founded? What pattern of growth or decline has it followed? What are some of the important events that have occurred within the recent life of this congregation?
3. How would you describe your congregation? What is its special character? What makes it distinctive from other groups in the area?
4. How would you describe your members? Background, ethnicity, social class, education, employment, commitment to the religious group? Anything else?
5. How are policy decisions made within your religious community? What is the means of implementation? What role do you personally play in the decision-making process?
6. Please describe the various programs and groups that meet regularly at your church/synagogue/temple/mosque.
7. Do you have any information (especially printed information) that would be helpful for my project: a history of the congregation, annual report, orientational brochures?
8. Is your group growing or declining in numbers? Are there any interesting new directions being taken in the life of the community?
9. Could you tell me something about yourself? Where did you receive your religious training? How did you decide to become a religious leader? What other congregations have you served?
At the beginning of the interview, briefly tell the person you are interviewing about this class and your assignment. At the end of the interview, ask if it would be all right for you to attend an additional meeting, and ask which would be best for you to attend. If you feel you need an additional interview, you might also ask if he or she can suggest someone in the congregation who would be willing to be interviewed by you. (Get the phone number before you leave, if you can.)
It is easiest for you if you record your interview(s), but you need to ask permission first and should not insist if there is any hesitancy on the part of the person you want to interview. Ask, too, if the interviewee would prefer to be anonymous if quoted directly in your project write-up.
Structure of the Paper and Research
As you learn more about the group you have chosen, you may want to focus rather more sharply on a few specific areas or issues. For example:
Why is everyone in the group over 50 years of age?
What is speaking in tongues?
Why are these teen-agers willing to give up “worldly pleasures” (dancing, alcohol, movies) in order to be members of this group?
Why do members of this community spend so much time ministering to the poor and homeless?
Still, it is important to not focus your research too quickly. Attention should be given to at least some of the following questions in your investigation:
1. What is the history of the group? When was it founded? When did membership peak? What is the current membership? What have been the most significant shaping moments in the history of the congregation?
2. What is the social setting of the congregation? What is the neighborhood like? Do people commute to meetings, or is the membership of the group drawn from the local area?
3. What does the meeting place look like? What is the architectural style? How old is the building? How well maintained is it? How does it make you feel when you walk into the sanctuary?
4. How does the congregation worship? Formally or informally? Is there singing, meditation, recitations, a sermon?
5. What are the teachings and beliefs of the group? What is formally taught by the clergy? Does this differ from what the people actually believe? How would you describe the “world-view” of the members? What are their moral commitments?
6. What is the religious experience of the people like? What do people seem to feel when they worship? Is personal prayer or meditation stressed, or group worship? Is the group this-worldly or other-worldly?
7. What is the group’s social structure and finances? How are decisions made? Does the congregation participate in decision- making? How? How is the group funded? How is money solicited?
8. What is the make-up of the group: age, gender, ethnicity, social class, typical employment? Do members seem to know each other? Is this a close-knit community?
9. What is the “social mission” of the group? What is the congregation attempting to do for its community? City? World? Is there some driving moral commitment central to the group?
10. What do you predict for the group in the future? Is the congregation growing? Aging? Attracting new members? What is the special character of the congregation in contrast to other congregations like and unlike it in the same area?
Whatever focus you develop in your paper, it is important to place that emphasis within the larger context of the three universal characteristics of any religious community: teaching, practice and social structure.
Being a “participant observer” in no way means that you must convert to the group’s religion in order to understand it (although some religious groups will certainly claim that you can not really understand them unless you are one of them). Rather, participant observation is a way of collecting information by 1) attending meetings at which one takes careful notes, 2) interviewing “informants” who have special insight into the life of the community, and 3) consulting the writings of group members.
Participant observation takes time and it seldom yields any statistical data. It relies instead on insightful descriptions of meetings, events and persons, and uses sociological categories and ideal types to help generalize about what is observed. The strength of qualitative research (as opposed to quantitative research based on questionnaires and highly structured interviewing) is the richly textured data it yields.
Field notes are essential for the participant observer. Jotted notes may be taken on napkins, church bulletins, on in a field notebook purchased for the purpose. Notes may be written during a meeting you are observing, in a rest room during a break from the meeting, riding a bus home from a meeting or interview, or at your computer.
Field notes are often written in several stages:
Jotted notes. It may be inappropriate to take detailed notes during a worship service. Therefore, you might have to rely on your memory, perhaps aided by an informal note or two jotted during the meeting. These quick notes remind you of things you think you might otherwise forget when writing up your full field notes.
Full Field Notes. Within 24 hours of an observation or interview, full field notes should be written. Full field notes include detailed descriptions of:
1. the sequence of events at the meeting,
2. what was said and who said it,
3. a description of the environment,
4. the attitudes of the people involved,
5. and everything else pertinent to your investigation.
You can expect to spend as much or more time writing up your notes
as that which you will spend observing or interviewing.
Analytical Hunches. You should put into your field notes any analytical hunches you have about what is going on in the group or social setting you are observing. This might include such things as the function of beliefs or rituals for members, the sociological type of the group (denomination, sect or cult?), an application of conversion theory (or theories of cult formation) to an understanding of your group. Develop a way to code analytical speculations in your text for easy reference later — use brackets, use different colors of ink, underline, or indent.
Personal Reactions. Field notes should also include your personal feelings about your experience of observing or interviewing. It is important not to ignore feelings of attraction to the group, or disgust, or embarrassing moments. Rather than pretending that these feelings do not exist, they should be placed in your field notes as a way of gaining perspective on them. Again, develop a code for distinguishing observations of an emotional nature from your running description of the group.
In qualitative research, interviews are conversational, and do not elicit the structured fixed choice responses of quantitative questionnaires. Your interview should have a structure, of course, but keep your eyes open for unexpected, interesting data on the group. Be willing to deviate from your prepared questions, if it seems advantageous. Record the interview if you can, but remember to ask permission first. Ask if your interviewee minds being quoted by name in your field study: “Is it okay for me to cite you by name, or would you prefer to be anonymous? Either way is fine with me.”
Your methodological text (the Miller bok) has useful guidelines for the interviewing process, but several further points should be kept in mind:
1. Do not try to impress the interviewee with how intelligent you are, how sophisticated your vocabulary is, or what great insight you have into his or her group. Avoid using jargon learned in this class. Be “naive,” open and teachable, seeking to understand how the world appears to those you are studying and how they make religious sense of it. Do not let your views of reality intrude into the field setting or you will distort that setting, making your study results unreliable.
2. Ask direct and easily understood questions. Start with specific questions to which you are sure the interviewee will have an answer, and then move to more penetrating and complex questions toward the end of the interview.
3. Do not be argumentative or judgmental in the interview. You are there to learn how the person you are interviewing understands the world. If their answers seem ridiculous and crazy to you, do not argue with them about the adequacy of their views; instead, seek to understand how they came to hold these views and what their teachings and ritual practices mean to them.
4. Ask follow-up questions to the interviewee’s responses. There are traditional verbal formulas for this. You might ask, “Do you mean [and repeat in your own words what you believe the interviewee has said],” or “I heard you saying…” Follow-up questions and responses elicit further information and clarification of information already obtained.
5. Relax. Do not be in a hurry to rush on to the next question. A short silence, especially if coupled with genuine interest on your part, can be creative. The rhetorical uses of silence are seldom appreciated in our culture.
Having completed the interview, your work is half done. You will now need to transcribe the interview or, if you did not tape it, write up full field notes within 24 hours. Each interview should be accompanied by a “face sheet” (see Lofland, p. 57) which includes 1) the interviewee’s name, 2) the date of the interview, 3) the place of the interview, 4) sex, 5) approximate age, 6) ethnicity, and anything else of particular relevance for your own study. Once completed, the interview becomes part of your field notes.
Organizing Field Notes
Even in a short field project, it often happens that field notes become voluminous. In a longer field project which might include dozens or even hundreds of interviews, it is extremely important to have a well defined system of organizing interviews and field notes.
Here is one possible method for organizing your notes:
1. Each time you observe a meeting or do an interview, place the notes from it in a separate file folder in a project file on your desktop.
2. Put any literature or printed material you collect that is related to your project in separate file folders either digitized on your desktop, or as hardcopies at your desk.
3. Read through your materials, coding them by topic (e.g., history of group, teachings, ritual, religious experience, social scientific categorical explanation of behavior).
4. Include the material in your write-up of your final reports, letting these topics shape the report.
Field research is an ongoing process, and so is any system for organizing field data. Whatever system you use or devise, you need one to do a good job.
Working with Field Notes
Creative insight concerning your field experiences comes in the process of going over your material or topic files like those described in the previous section. As you regularly read over the notes that are collecting, you should be asking questions about the importance, significance and function of beliefs, acts, rituals and social patterns. In the process of reviewing your notes, and as you factor the course material into you project, new insights will emerge, and these insights should be written down and, if you choose the above method of organization, put into the appropriate thematic file. These insights may include new things to look for in future observations; or additional questions to ask in an interview.
Writing the Report
If you have developed files in the manner described above, the final report will almost write itself. The each major heading for the paper will be a topic file. Each file will contain descriptive notes from interviews and observations, while others will be more theoretical and analytical.
A term project which takes a rather comprehensive approach to the study of a congregation might have many of the following sections, although this is only a sample outline:
1. Identify the group. Give its name, location, denominational affiliation (if it has one), and more generally introduce the group. The first paragraphs might also introduce a theme which will run through the entire paper. This could be done by beginning with an anecdote, or some other device for catching the reader’s attention.
2. The methodology of your study. Tell me why you decided to study this group, how you collected your information, number and type of meetings you observed, number of interviews and with whom they were conducted. Tell me about any problems you ran into while doing the study.
3. The history of the group. When was the group founded, and by whom? Where is it in the Weberian growth cycle? Does the group have a distinctive character?
4. The teachings of the group. What do members believe? What do clergy preach and teach? What are the most important social ethical beliefs of the group? What is the world view of members?
5. What is the practice of the group? Describe a typical worship service, sermon, ritual or other sacramental rite, including meditation. What is the “experience” of the worshippers?
6. What are the social psychological and sociological characteristics of the group? Describe the members: age, ethnicity, social class, gender. How are decisions made in this organization? What are typical programs of the congregation?
7. Social outreach and ministry to the community. How does the congregation relate to community, city, nation and world? Does the congregation have specific programs that minister to those outside the group? Or is outreach intended primarily to convert others to their point of view?
8. What are the unique characteristics of the congregation? What are the specific problems facing the group? What hot issues is it currently facing?
9. Concluding observations. Your personal opinions about the group, including speculations on the group’s future.
Proof your papers before you turn them in to me. All papers should go through more than one draft. You may use the first person singular (“I visited the church three times…”), and should follow one of the recognized style guides (e.g., MLA, APA, Turabian). The final paper (excluding excessive indented quotations) should be 8-10 pages in length.
Your final paper may have an appendix that can include your field materials, including notes, tapes of interviews and literature from the group (do not include books).
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