Digital Methodologies in the Sociology of Religion

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Editor(s): 
Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor, Suha Shakkour
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , December
     2015.
     256 pages.
     $37.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781472571151.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

“As digital religious or belief communities and online identities become increasingly common, our approach to their study must necessarily adapt, and alongside this our understanding of the contexts, challenges, advantages and ethics of using digital methodologies” (xvi). As the introductory sentence of this volume summarizes, the fields of religion and sociology of religion have had to adjust to the increased use of technology—not only as used by religious groups or organizations, but as used by researchers in the pursuit of knowledge about the subjects we study. Featuring scholars who have been most prominent in the sustained conversation around religion and media, this book provides valuable insights into how researchers have used digital methodologies in their own work. Each chapter addresses a particular issue or challenge as illustrated through that scholar’s own research area or project, clearly demonstrating the problems, solutions, advantages, and obstacles of various digital methodologies.

The first chapter is an introduction to digital religion with literature review and summary of scholarship thus far. Heidi Campbell and Brian Altenhofen divide the research of digital religion into four waves: descriptive, categorical, theoretical, and integrated/convergent. This book, perhaps, sits squarely at the fourth wave, where the other three categories intersect and methodologies or typologies are created. The introduction is a useful and concise break down for understanding the evolution of the field and how scholarship has shifted with the change of computer-mediated communications.

Whether for the beginner or for the more seasoned scholar who is pursuing research in this area, Digital Methodologies offers a much needed discussion in the area of ethics. The editors’ introduction raises several questions about anonymity or online representation of the respondents, anonymity or representation of the researcher, privacy issues, public versus private domains, and insider/outsider tensions. Ethics is one of the most crucial areas of examination for academics utilizing electronic media in their research. For example, in chapter four Chris Allen explores Muslim hate-groups on Facebook. He raises several concerns about “public” spaces that researchers can explore at will, and whether members who post in these spaces fully understand their visibility and vulnerability. Regarding data-gathering on Facebook, there is an interesting comparison between posting a general call for respondents, and sending a personal message to potential respondents. Accordingly, Allen notes that there is a difference in efficacy, but also brings up questions of how one defines “face-to-face” contact and anonymity. This issue of the blurring of public and private domains is also seen in Stephen Pihlaja’s article on YouTube comments, in which he follows a hostile conversation between a Christian and an atheist commenter. The articles also raise a fundamental question about researchers potentially viewing public social media spaces as a “research playground” where the lines between private and public are fuzzy at best. This conversation around ethics in digital methodologies is an essential topic that has been only cursorily addressed until now.

Sometimes the researcher candidly reveals their presence in a private space. Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor’s piece on online Sufism discusses her peek inside a Sufi community through message boards, in which she clearly positions herself as both insider (fellow Muslim) and outsider (academic researcher). What she terms as a “netnographic” exercise demonstrates the advantages of such privileged position of observation, while at the same time raising time-old ethnographic questions of how the presence of the researcher may influence the research itself. It would have been interesting to see a similar discussion in Singh’s article on an online British Sikh community, where Jasjit Singh utilizes both semi-structured interviews and online surveys to identify patterns and trends in how young British Sikhs learn about Sikhism.

Ethnography is another important theme that runs through this edited volume: it highlights multi-sited ethnography (gleaning from a number of social media sites); online surveys; Skype interviews (as with Anna Piela’s chapter on niqab-wearing Muslim women); connecting online-offline data (as Pauline Hope Cheong, Boris Brummans, and Jennie Hwang discuss in their chapter); and “virtual” ethnography. The latter is addressed in a chapter by William Bainbridge who explores massive multi-player games as a virtual environment for ethnography. These locations offer perspectives on avatars and representation, religious themes, and data gathering through in-game observation.

Simone Heidbrink, Tobias Knoll, and Jan Wysocki also explore the world of gaming in their chapter, and the potential of both “game-immanent perspectives” which look at narratives and aesthetics of a game world, and “player centered” approaches which explore the relationship between the gamer and the game. They offer a methodological toolbox for those interested in pursuing research in this area. Meanwhile, Isamar Carillo Masso’s chapter on representation and performance of Judaism in video games takes an entirely different approach, focusing on critical discourse analysis.

An important methodological tool that is addressed in a number of chapters is the online survey. Tristam Hooley and Paul Weller discuss the use of survey software, a tool which is cost efficient, fast, and can reach across large populations and geographies. They problematize this methodology, however, noting challenges to framing effective questions that will offer the most complex range of answers. Several of the contributors to this volume discussed how they used online surveys, and it was very useful to see the ways in which they addressed various obstacles or limitations.

The purpose of this book is to encourage interdisciplinary and innovative approaches to digital media, and to work through the challenges or obstacles encountered in the case studies with a productive conversation within the field. As technology is changing rapidly, so too must methodologies adjust and evolve to accommodate the complexity and multimodality of the Internet. Issues of accessibility, for example, are ever present considerations in any online research. Specific examples seated within each author’s research very clearly illustrate particular challenges or problems encountered and how the researcher handled them (or theorized possible solutions). This volume is both a practical guide as well as a theoretical one, and encourages further research and conversation in the area of digital methods, ethics, and ethnographies. Digital Methodologies would be valuable not only to those whose research takes place in digital domains, but also as a helpful guide in distinguishing new from traditional methodologies, or to promote the use of new technologies and approaches in seminars or even the classroom. As a digital researcher, I found it timely, useful, and insightful.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Juli L. Gittinger is Lecturer of Religion at Georgia College and State University, Milledgeville, Georgia.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor is Research Fellow in Faith and Peaceful Relations at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University, UK.

Suha Shakkour is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Derby.

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