New Methods in the Measurement of Religion
- ISBN: 9781479877102
- Published By: New York University Press
- Published: October 2017
Scholars neck deep in the sociology of religion often gripe about the measures used in survey research. There’s good reason for this office banter: a certain degree of inertia has taken hold of the field, making it difficult and costly for researchers to publish work that dares to cut against the methodological grain. Relishing a good fight and hunting down like-minded contrarians, Roger Finke and Christopher D. Bader have amassed a veritable hit list of sociologists and religion scholars willing to challenge the status quo and offer innovative ways to measure and study religion. As the title of the work suggests, this book is about measuring religion, but as Finke and Bader hope to show, with recent insights on existing measures combined with the introduction of new technologies, there has been no better time to collaborate with others to produce the present work. Their purpose, in short, is “to inspire creativity and exploration among social scientists of religion—to improve upon the science and art of measuring religion in everyday life” (5).
As editors, Finke and Bader organize their work into two main sections. Section 1 features six chapters that assess current methodologies and measures used in survey research. Philip Brenner’s opening chapter, “How Religious Identity Shapes Survey Responses,” is instructive in its deft treatment of response bias. As Brenner shows, when respondents are asked about their religious attendance, they frequently overreport their behavior, not because they wish to deceive the researcher necessarily, but because they reinterpret the question to be more about who they are rather than what they do. Religious identity, in other words, supersedes religious behavior in the mind of the respondent and serves as a main culprit behind measurement bias. In their chapter on Amazon’s crowdsourced platform called Mechanical Turk (MTurk), Joseph Baker, Jonathan Hill, and Nathaniel Porter help researchers see how to test their surveys before sending them into the field. For a fraction of the price, researchers can now tap into Amazon’s on-demand workforce, thereby experimenting with new survey questions that wish to target certain populations such as secularists and the non-religious. Bader and Finke’s own contribution to section 1 includes a chapter on metadata and analysis made possible through the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA). Highlighting the utility of ARDA’s new tool called the Measurement Wizard, Bader and Finke discuss the utility of comparing specific religious variables across different surveys.
In section 2, attention is given to new methods and technologies that enable researchers to move beyond traditional survey measures. Christopher Scheitle starts this section off with his chapter on retrieving documents online that can shed light on religious phenomena including tax returns for religious nonprofits, newspaper articles on clergy and sexual abuse of congregations, websites of religious congregations, and others. Finke and Jennifer McClure (no relation) evaluate Google’s online treasure trove of digitized books and how its Ngram viewer permits researchers to track the popularity of certain words and key phrases. Despite its definite shortcomings and the lack of context that attend Ngram searches, the 3.4 million scanned books represent a previously unavailable tool that researchers may find useful in certain situations. A final chapter worth mentioning comes from Bradley Wright and his associates who pioneered SoulPulse, an innovative smartphone-based survey that taps into the experiences of respondents in real-time, thus avoiding the well-known problems of recall bias.
Readers approaching this anthology will be impressed by the thoughtfulness, innovation, and attention to methodology that surface in this work. Given that new measures in the social scientific study of religion are few and far between, Finke and Bader have accomplished what they set out to do when they put together this excellent resource. At the same time, readers outside the professional guild may find this work a bit unwieldy or inaccessible. While Finke and Bader have clearly contributed to the study of religion, their work is geared more toward graduate students and professors in the academy rather than undergraduates studying religion or otherwise interested laypeople.
Even so, Finke and Bader should be commended for their ability to recruit a talented pool of researchers in the study of religion who are passionate about refining existing measures and pushing methodological boundaries. For my part in all this, I appreciated their courage to take on a project of this scale and their unflagging optimism to answer calls for methodological reform. If Wuthnow’s 2015 book, Inventing American Religion (Oxford University Press), threw down the gauntlet and challenged scholars to reconceive how religion should be measured and studied, then Finke, Bader, and company answered the challenge in this work with optimism, nuance, and confidence. For those eager to wade into such methodological debates or perhaps forge ahead with their own strategies, Faithful Measures: New Methods in the Measurement of Religion will be a welcome resource.
Paul K. McClure is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Lynchburg.Paul McClureDate Of Review:November 12, 2018