Methodological Musings on Studying Religion Online

We know very little, and yet it is astonishing that we know so much, and still more astonishing that so little knowledge can give us so much power.

Bertrand Russell (1872–1970)

A few of you will have come across my edited volume with Dr Suha Shakkour on Digital Methodologies in the Sociology of Religion (Bloomsbury 2015). Nearly a decade old, this volume emerged from my own experiences of researching young Muslims’ sufi practices online (Cheruvallil-Contractor 2013). Back then it seemed urgent to reflect on how the digital was reshaping religious experience. Equally expedient was to think about the methodologies being employed to study digital religion. When this volume was first published, an eminent professor of theology wrote that he had read this book. Reticently, he acquiesced that religion could be experienced online, although he remained unsure if this was ‘good’ or ‘authentic’ religion and just a temporary fad – yet he agreed it was happening and was deserving of attention. But he said that no matter how much he intellectually stretched, he remained flummoxed by the idea of ‘digital methodologies’.  Surely, he said, I meant ‘digital methods’ and not ‘digital methodologies’. This blog presents a clarification to the professor’s question and a benchmark understanding of the term digital methodology.

Starting then with methodology, and the idea that this is much more than methods.  Dictionary meanings agree with academic ones. Methodology is “body of methods, rules, and postulates employed by a discipline” (Merriam-Webster) or “a system of ways of doing, teaching, or studying something” (Cambridge). According to Mackenzie and Knipe (2006),

methodology is the overall approach to research linked to the paradigm or theoretical framework while the method refers to systematic modes, procedures or tools used for collection and analysis of data.

Mackenzie and Knipe (2006)

Methodology is a toolkit that researchers use: an episteme or system of knowledge that determines how we know what we know through research, including the theoretical frameworks we employ and the answers we find. It is determined by academic discipline that the research works within or seeks to disrupt. Methodology is also about our personal and intellectual positionalities and commitments to or rejection of ideas of objectivity in research. Whereas some scholars still attempt to emphasise objectivity, most now recognise that it is hardly possible to park oneself at home, while doing research. Instead, researchers are encouraged to be transparent about who they are in relation to the research they are doing. This approach is not without critique – are researchers from minoritised backgrounds being encouraged to think positionally, whereas those from other backgrounds are let off the hook? Context is key too – what are the cultural, geographical and political sensitivities and hierarchies that are shaping the nature of the questions being asked and answers being received? Adhering to appropriate ethical frameworks is central to the methodology a research project employs. And only then comes methods or tools one employs.

Thinking methodologically is not easy. Focussing just on methods is, simply put, ‘boring’ and it can be hard to disentangle the philosophical, ethical and moral methodological concerns from debatably more prosaic methods. No one is immune to methodological worries. Weber’s wife Marianne describes the difficulties her husband experienced while writing about methodologies for the social sciences, as well his ‘inner compulsions’:

His first works were primarily the expression of a young historian with an insatiable hunger for material. […] Then, in 1902, after the severe crisis that would last for a long time, Weber’s creative impulse was directed toward an entirely different intellectual field. […] Whether for external reasons or because of an inner compulsion, he now withdrew from reality in his capacity of thinker as well and devoted himself to thinking about thought and about the logical and epistemological problem of his science.

Marianne Weber, 1975: 306 (cited in Shils and Finch 2017)

What about digital methodologies, particularly those that study religion? Digital methodologies entail systems of knowledge that recognise the impact on digital spaces, experiences and encounters on everyday analogue or offline life. Writing in 2013, I had already concluded that the separation between the ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ that existed at the end of the 20th century was no longer relevant to young sufis. For them the digital is the real (Cheruvallil-Contractor 2013). This is old news, and one of the premises for the ESRC Digital British Islam project is that the significance of the digital on everyday lives continues to grow to the extent that now in many spheres the digital shapes the analogue. So digital methodologies allow for traditional methodological questions around epistemology, theoretical frameworks, ethics, positionality, ontology and context to be explored in the context of the digital.

Digital Methodologies in the Sociology of Religion discussed methodological transformations, from the philosophical to those that were more instrumental. For example, on the one hand, the need to rethink ethical frameworks on good practice around anonymity and confidentiality. These terms take on completely different meanings in digital contexts. Do digital profiles entail an expression of identity? Are people really anonymous online? And as Allen notes (2015), are people less guarded in the things they say online because they think they are anonymous? Ideas of space, community and social networks change as people navigate who they are, interact, study, work, play and form relationships online. All of these activities having ramifications for their offline lives, blurring boundaries between the online and the offline, in some cases to non-existence.

From a more prosaic / instrumental approach, the volume outlined practical considerations to be considered in the implementation of a particular method, for example during an online interview or focus group discussion. For example, Piela explores what is a private space that can be used for online interview (2015)? Is it sufficient that only the researcher and the participants are on the online conferencing tool – is that private enough? But what if someone else is in the physical room? Digital Methodologies addressed these and other questions. For its time, this was a valuable methodological initiative that was largely valued by peers (Feltmate, 2017, Gittinger 2016, Guillory 2016, Anonymous 2016). A decade on, the technology available both to religious communities and those who research them has moved on, in leaps and bounds, catalysed in part by Covid, which has enhanced everyone’s capacity and ability to use online tools. And so, the need for new thinking – both about lived experiences of online religion and indeed the methodologies that we can use to study them. These are two areas where our current project ESRC Digital British Islam will make original contributions.

In conclusion, digital methodologies are a ‘thing’ that is increasing in use and in worth. A system of understanding and studying the world that acknowledges the ever-growing impact of the digital environs on everyday life. This is a field that constantly needs updating as new technologies shape not just what we do on phones and other devices, but which also shape our sense and expressions of being. I end with note of thanks to the professor who shall remained unnamed but who encouraged me to think about digital methodologies in the study of religion. In a next piece, I shall write about the methods that we in the ESRC DBI team use and love!

References:

Allen, C. (2015) ‘Facebook as anti-social media: using Facebook groups to engage opponents to the building of Dudley mosque’ in Cheruvallil-Contractor, S. and Shakkour, S. (2015) (eds) Digital Methodologies in the Sociology of Religion. London & New York: Continuum, pp. 39-48

Anonymous (2016) ‘Review of Digital Methodologies in the Sociology of Religion’ [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Digital-Methodologies-Sociology-Religion-Cheruvallil-Contractor/dp/1472571169#customerReviews]

Cheruvallil-Contractor, S. (2013) ‘Online Sufism – Young British Muslims, their internet ‘selves’ and virtual reality’ in Gabriel, T & Geaves, R (eds.) British Sufism. London: Continuum

Cheruvallil-Contractor, S. and Shakkour, S. (2015) (eds) Digital Methodologies in the Sociology of Religion. London & New York: Continuum

Feltmate, D. (2017) ‘Review of Digital Methodologies in the Sociology of Religion’ in Nova Religio (2017) 20 (4): 133–135. https://doi.org/10.1525/nr.2017.20.4.133

Gittinger, J. (2016) ‘Review of Digital Methodologies in the Sociology of Religion’ in Reading Religion [https://readingreligion.org/9781472571151/digital-methodologies-in-the-sociology-of-religion/]

Guillory, M.S. (2016) ‘Review of Digital Methodologies in the Sociology of Religion’ in Religious Studies Review, 42: 268-268. https://doi.org/10.1111/rsr.12644

Mackenzie, N. and Knipe, S. (2006) ‘Research dilemmas: Paradigms, methods and methodolog’ in Issues In Educational Research, Vol 16 [https://www.iier.org.au/iier16/mackenzie.html]

Piela, A. (2015 ‘Videoconferencing as a Tool Facilitating Feminist Interviews with Muslim Women Who Wear the Niqab’ in Cheruvallil-Contractor, S. and Shakkour, S. (2015) (eds) Digital Methodologies in the Sociology of Religion. London & New York: Continuum, pp. 109-122

Shils, E.A. and Finch, H.A. Ed.s (2017) Methodology of Social Sciences – Max Weber. London and New York: Routledge

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