Research Methods for the Study of Religion

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Ethnography is a form of research practice in which the researcher immerses themselves in a specific social and cultural context, usually through some form of participant-observation. This approach is closely associated with the interpretation of cultural life, and challenges researchers to reflect on how ethnographic knowledge is filtered through their own thoughts and feelings, as well as the ways in which their participants perceive and interact with them.

Key reading

James Spickard & J. Shawn Landres (2002) ‘Introduction: whither ethnography? Transforming the social-scientific study of religion’, in (eds.) J. Spickard, J.S. Landres & M. McGuire, Personal Knowledge and Beyond: Reshaping the Ethnography of Religion, New York: New York University Press, pp.1-14.

This introduction to one of the key texts in this area provides a good overview of major theoretical and methodological debates that frame contemporary ethnographic approaches to the study of religion.

Erika Summers Effler (2010) Laughing Saints and Righteous Heroes: Emotional Rhythms in Social Movement Groups, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp.23-68.

This chapter, exploring the role of emotion in commitment amongst those serving in a Catholic Worker house, provides a good example of the role of reflexivity in generating research insights. It also illustrates how ethnographic narratives can develop arguments through weaving together accounts of events with theoretical insights.


PDF version of this bibliography is also available.

Ethnographic approaches to the study of religion compiled by Dr Sean McLoughlin, University of Leeds


Culture and Religion
Fieldwork in Religion
Journal of Contemporary Ethnography
Journal of Contemporary Religion
Method & Theory in the Study of Religion

Introductions to Ethnography:

Suggested Reading:

  • Bryman, A. (2008) Social Research Methods. Third edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Chapter 17
  • Atkinson, P.(2007) Ethnography: Principles in Practice. 3rd edition. London: Routledge.
  • Brewer, J. (2000) Ethnography. Milton Keynes: Open University Press
  • Fetterman, D. (2009) Ethnography: Step-by-Step. 3rd edition. London: Sage.

Further reading

Atkinson, P. (1990) The Ethnographic Imagination: Textual Constructions of Society. London: Routledge.
(eds.) Atkinson, P., Delamont, S.,  Coffey, A., Lofland, J. &  Lofland, L. (2007) Handbook of Ethnography. London: Sage.

(eds.) Clifford, J. & Marcus, G. (1986) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Clifford, J. (1988)The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-century Ethnography, Literature and Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Coffey, A. (1999) The Ethnographic Self: Fieldwork and the Representation of Reality. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage.

Davies, C. A. (1999) Reflexive Ethnography: A Guide to Researching Selves and Others. London and New York: Routledge.

Emerson, R. (1995) Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Gingrich, A. and Richard G. Fox (eds) (2002) Anthropology, By Comparison, London and New York: Routledge.

Hammersley, M. (1990) ‘What’s wrong with ethnography? The myth of theoretical description’, Sociology, Vol. 24, No. 4, 597-615

Hammersley, M. (1992) What’s Wrong with Ethnography? London: Routledge.

Hobbs, D. and May T. (1993) Interpreting the Field: Accounts of Ethnography. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Marcus, G. E. and Fischer, M. (1999), Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences.Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marcus, G. (2007) ‘Ethnography Two Decades After Writing Culture: From the Experimental to the Baroque’, Anthropological Quarterly, 80(4), 1127-1145.

Spradley, J. P. (1979) The Ethnographic Interview. Orlando: Rinehart and Winston.

(eds.) McLean, A., & Leibing, A. (2007) The Shadow Side of Fieldwork: Exploring the Blurred Borders Between Ethnography and Life Wiley-Blackwell

Van Maanen, J. (1988) Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. Chicago: Chicago University Press.


Bochner, A. & Ellis, C. (2001) Ethnographically Speaking: Autoethnography, Literature and Aesthetics. Lanham, MD.: AltaMira Press.

Heewon V. Chang (2008) Autoethnography as Method. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Coffey, A. (1999) The Ethnographic Self: Fieldwork and the Representation of Identity. London: Sage.

Davies, C. Aull (2007) Reflexive Ethnography: A Guide to Researching Selves and Others 2nd edition. New York: Routledge.

Ellis, C. (2008) Revision: Autoethnographic Reflections on Life and Work. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Ellis, C. (2004) The Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel About Autoethnography. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Muncey, T. (2010) Creating Autoethnographies. London: Sage.

Reed-Danahay, D. (1997) Auto/Ethnography: Rewriting the Self and the Social. Oxford: Berg.

Ethnography and the Study of Religion

Suggested reading:

(eds.) Spickard, J., Landres, S., & McGuire, M. (2002) Personal Knowledge and Beyond: Reshaping the Ethnography of Religion. New York: New York University Press

Further reading:

Bennett, C. (1996) In Search of the Sacred. London: Cassell

Bowman, M. (1992) ‘Phenomenology, fieldwork and religion.’ British Association for the Study of Religions Occasional Paper, 5 (and in Sutcliffe (ed), see below).

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

Geaves, R. (2007) ‘Fieldwork in the Study of Religion’, in Chryssides, G. and Geaves, R., The Study of Religion: An Introduction to Key Ideas and Methods, London and New York: Continuum.

Knott, K. (2010) ‘Insider/outsider perspectives’, in J Hinnells (ed) A Routledge Companion to the Study of Religions, London: Routledge, pp.259-73.

Lewis, I. (2003) Arguments with Ethnography: Comparative Approaches to History, Politics and Religion. London: Continuum.

(ed.) McCutcheon, R. (ed.) (1999) The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion. London: Cassell.
Nesbitt, E. (2009) ‘The teacher of religion as ethnographer’, in (ed.) P. Clarke, The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.965-85.

Shaw, R. (1995) ‘Feminist anthropology and the gendering of religious studies’ in U. King (ed.) Religion and Gender. Oxford: Blackwell.

Spickard, J. (2009) ‘Ethnography/religion: explorations in field and classroom’, in (ed.) P. Clarke, The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.986-1008.

Discussion questions

  • If ethnographic knowledge is generated through inter-personal actions between the researcher and others in the field, what does this imply for how we think about the significance of the research context and process, and the nature of knowledge that is produced?
  • What is the significance of the researcher’s reflexivity for ethnographic fieldwork?
  • What ethical and political issues are raised by conducting ethnography?
  • What is the role of theory for ethnographic research?