Research Methods for the Study of Religion

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Conceptualising religion

The meaning and significance of the term ‘religion’ is the subject of extensive debate. We cannot assume that the understanding of ‘religion’ we bring to our research is universal or self-evident. How we conceptualise religion (and other related categories) has significant implications for how we theorise our work, design our projects and make knowledge-claims. Reflecting on our concepts of religion is therefore a fundamental task for good research in this field.


This exercise by Kim Knott will help you to become more critically aware of how you use ‘religion’ in your work.

Key reading

Timothy Fitzgerald (2000) The Ideology of Religious Studies, New York: Oxford University Press, pp.3-32.

In this chapter, Fitzgerald writes:

‘As a contribution to this reconceptualisation [of religion], I propose that religious studies be rethought and represented as cultural studies, understood as the study of the institutions and the institutionalised values of specific societies, and the relation between those institutionalised values and the legitimation of power. (p.10)’

On what grounds would you agree or disagree with his statement?


PDF version of this bibliography is also available.

Asad, T. (1993) Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Beckford, J. (2003) Social Theory and Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Braun, W. and McCutcheon, R. T. (eds) (2000) Guide to the Study of Religion. New York: Cassell.

Braun, W. and McCutcheon, R. T. (eds) (2009) Introducing Religion: Essays in Honor of Jonathan Z. Smith. London and Oakville: Equinox.

Csordas, T. (2004) ‘Asymptote of the ineffable: embodiment, alterity and the theory of religion’, Current Anthropology, 45(2), 163-85.

Culture and Religion, review symposium on Manufacturing Religion by R. T. McCutcheon, 1:1 (2000).

Fitzgerald, T. (2000) The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McCutcheon, R. T. (1997) Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of
. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McCutcheon, R. T. (2003) The Discipline of Religion. London and New York: Routledge.

McCutcheon, R. T. (2005) Studying Religion: An Introduction. London and Oakville: Equinox.

Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, special issue on Conceptualising Religion by Benson Saler, 12: 1-4 (2000).

Nye, M. (2000), Religion, post-religionism, and religioning: religious studies and contemporary cultural debates’, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 12: 3, 447-76.

Nye, M. (2008), Religion: The Basics, second edition. London and New York: Routledge.

Saler, B. (2000) [1993] Conceptualising Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbounded Categories. New York: Berghahn Books.

Smith, J. Z. (1982), Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, J. Z. (1998), Religion, religions, religious, in M. Taylor (ed.) Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Staussberg, M. (2009) Contemporary Theories of Religion: A Critical Companion. London: Routledge.

Taylor, M. (ed.) (1998) Critical Terms for Religious Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tweed, T. (2008) Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Van der Veer, P. (2001) Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

de Vries, H. (ed.) (2007) Religion: Beyond a Concept. New York: Fordham University Press.

Discussion questions

  • What difference does the researcher’s conceptualisation of ‘religion’ make to the way in which they conduct their research?
  • Should ‘religion’ be distinguished conceptually from the ‘sacred’?
  • If we understand key concepts in the study of religion to be historically and culturally constructed, what role can they usefully play in our research?
  • Are there any distinct and essential elements of human existence or society that can be defined as ‘religious’?