Religion: The Social Context

Resources for Students and Teachers

Observing Local Religious Groups


Attend the worship service of two religious groups other than your own. Try to observe relatively unfamiliar religious traditions to avoid too many preconceived notions. It may help to go with a friend who is more familiar with that religion and can help you know how to behave and what to expect, but remember that "insiders" have assumptions about what is going on that the observer does not want to take for granted. If you go with others, keep your groups limited to three persons to avoid being obtrusive. Each student will submit independent field notes of the event, to be written up immediately after the observation.

If the religious group is large and its services public, no permission is needed, but in smaller groups (e.g., a house church or a meditation circle), it’s a good idea before attending to phone and ask consent to attend for course purposes. You should also ask consent of any group whose worship services may not be fully public.

Every religious group has norms about behavior before, during, and after worship services. Established religious groups have somewhat standardized expectations that any visitor ought to try to meet. A useful guide is How to Be a Perfect Stranger: A Guide to Etiquette in Other People’s Religious Ceremonies (edited by A. J. Magida, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 1996). It contains a little background about the religion and its worship, recommended clothing (e.g., if head covering is required, whether jewelry is okay, how dressed up must one be), how the sanctuary is arranged, where guests should sit, when not to enter, in which services guests may participate, and which services are for members only. The guide includes Buddhist, Christian Science, Greek Orthodox, Hindu, Islam, Jewish, Mormon, Roman Catholic, and Quaker worship, as well as several mainline, pentecostal, and other Protestant forms of worship. If the group you plan to visit is not described, you might ask friends who are from that tradition to tell you what to expect. Most groups also welcome advance inquiries from prospective visitors; you should find out (minimally) when to arrive, how to dress appropriately, and where visitors should sit or stand. Usually they will anticipate any other preparations you ought to know about and welcome the chance to tell you in advance.

You will get the most out of this experience if you imagine you are a beginning professional researcher and these visits are only the first stages of a serious research project on this and similar religious groups. Before attending, think about what you intend to observe, and keep in mind your research objectives: What do you hope to learn about this group from observations?

Some professors instruct their students to observe for particular aspects on each visit. For example, Jim Spickard’s classes at the University of Redlands are often assigned to observe specific religious groups. At one, they observe for institutional organization (specialized roles, norms for the organization of the service, etc.); at another, they focus on plausibility structures and commitment mechanisms (e.g., social features such as social class or ethnic homogeneity, ways that groups enmesh members in social activities); at another, they observe for boundary-maintaining activities and the group’s images of "the World." Each chapter of this text includes several relevant themes on which to focus your observation.

Being clear about your objectives will enable you, like a professional researcher, to be alert to important occurrences that you might otherwise miss. Keeping these objectives in mind during the observation will help you stay flexible in order to adjust your plans midstream if you are surprised by unexpected events or changes or if you have unanticipated opportunities to learn more. For example, one student wanted to understand a religious group’s social activism. At her first visit, not only the sermon but also several contributions by members of the congregation expressed strong political and moral sentiments and urged activism. After the service, the family sitting beside her (to whom she had previously introduced herself as a student visitor) asked her how she liked the worship. Keeping her objectives in mind, she was able to ask relevant questions from these willing informants: Was today’s service pretty typical? Are most folks here active in some of the church-sponsored projects, like the one on homelessness the pastor mentioned? What do you think a visitor like me ought to know to appreciate your congregation and its worship better?

Also before going, think about the ethical and methodological issues of doing participant observation. One important ethical rule of thumb is: Never present yourself to others as something other than your real identity. This is not usually an issue for undergraduates who may attend one or two services as a part of a course assignment. If asked, you may simply say, "I’m a student at _________ College, and my professor assigned us to visit any religious group other than our own, and since I was most interested in learning more about your religion, I came here today." One student who attended an ethnic congregation’s service, although he was clearly not of the same ethnic group, told a curious member: "My professor assigned us to visit some religious group other than my own, and I live near here and noticed what an active church you seem to have, so I wanted to visit this church." All of this explanation was true and provided a perfect opening for the member to then tell the student a lot more about the congregation, its activities, and why there was a strong sense of "belonging" in that church.

If you are beginning a long-term study of a religious group, however, this same norm requires that you not disguise your research intent. Thus, fairly early in your research project you need to negotiate with the appropriate leaders to obtain permission to do research. You don’t have to explain all your research objectives, but you should be prepared to make serious assurances to the group not only of confidentiality—which applies to all social research—but especially of an earnest effort to treat their valued beliefs and practices with full respect and consideration.

This respect is, however, also an intrinsic part of doing good participant observation. The best participant-observer is one who can comprehend enough of the group’s beliefs, practices, and experiences that it all becomes perfectly plausible as a way of being religious. There are thoughtful methodological points in several of the ethnographic monographs recommended as reading in Chapters 3 and 4. See also the long methodological notes in my ethnographies, Pentecostal Catholics (Temple University Press, 1982) and Ritual Healing in Suburban America (Rutgers University Press, 1988). Good ethnographic research requires considerable skill and methodological precision. For a beginning undergraduate, this can be a fun learning experience; advanced students will ideally be honing these more difficult skills.

A hint for researchers doing participant observation with a group: When I write up my field notes, I have found it very useful to distinguish paragraphs of "Observation Notes" (O.N., purely descriptive notes) and "Methodological Notes" (M.N., reflections about methodology linked to the adjacent observation notes) from "Theoretical Notes" (T.N., notes to myself about possible interpretations, correlations, and "big-picture" questions for further thought, observation, and analysis). Periodic review of these notes reminds me to try different ways of methodologically tapping certain features of group life and to be open to alternative interpretations of what I have been observing.

The separation of other notes to myself from the more neutral descriptive observation notes enables me to be more reflexive—not only to deal with possible biases in the "eye of the beholder" but also to tease out potentially important understandings. For example, many years ago I made the methodological note that a particular part of the service of a group I was studying made me very uncomfortable, but it took me two or three more visits to identify why: Certain postures and gestures at that part of the service made me uneasy, not only because they were unfamiliar in my own religious experience, but—more importantly—because they literally embodied (i.e., expressed and impressed on each participant’s body) certain religious values and attitudes that I did not personally agree with. That awareness resulted—in the short term—in my finding a way to participate that did not go against my personal convictions yet did not violate the group’s norms, and—in the long term—in a stimulus for studying much more about the connection between the body and religion.

Ethnography – literally "writing culture" – has a long, yet contested, tradition in anthropology, as a way of knowing other cultures. In recent years, many researchers in sociology, anthropology, and religious studies have tried to apply an ethnographic approach to the study of religion in complex societies and their subcultures, such as in the United States and Europe.2 I personally believe that ethnographic approaches to studying religion can prove insightful and can help our fields overcome some of our epistemological problems (i.e., "How do we know what we claim to know when we are researching religion?") in our fields. Advanced students interested in ethnography should read the essays by many well-known sociologists and anthropologists of religion in Personal Knowledge and Beyond: Reshaping the Ethnography of Religion, edited by J. V. Spickard, J. S. Landres, and M. B. McGuire (New York University Press, 2001).

A Guide for Beginners

Visiting local religious groups provides a practical feel for religious life. It is also useful for developing a "sociological eye"—a key part of understanding the sociological approach to religion.

 This observation guide will help undergraduate sociology of religion students focus their first observations, and more advanced students will find it useful for beginning extensive participant observation or ethnographic research in a religious context.

You will, however, need to adapt this guide to your specific research objectives and the particular kind of religious group you visit.

Religion: The Social Context