Research Methods for the Study of Religion

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Purple horizon
Picture by Michael Holden

Studying religious life and practice will inevitably require thinking about the objects and spaces through which ‘religion’ gets acted out. Rather than focusing on religious ideas or ‘inner’ beliefs, this challenges us to think about the significance of everyday aesthetics, the nature of space and the material basis of social life.

Discussion paper

Peter Collins explores why objects and space are an important focus for study, as well as theoretical and practical approaches to this work.

Key reading

B. Meyer, D. Morgan, C. Paine & S.B. Plate, (2010) ‘The origin and mission of Material Religion’, Religion40(3),207-11.

The co-founders of the journal Material Religion discuss the intellectual developments that led to the development of this as a distinctive field of study, as well as key debates and concepts that have emerged since the journal has been established.

B. Meyer (2006) ‘Why media, aesthetics and power matter in the study of religion’

This inaugural lecture by Birgit Meyer (available free online) provides a theoretical framework for thinking about the relationships between religious experience, its physical mediation and structures of power in the performance of religious subjectivities.


PDF version of this bibliography is available online.

Material Culture (Journal)

Material Religion: the journal of objects, art and belief (Journal)

Bourdieu, P. 1977 Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Bruner, J. 1990 Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP.

Buchli, V. (ed) 2004 Material culture: critical concepts in the social sciences. London:

Carmichael, D.L., J. Hubert, B. Reeves, and A. Schanche (eds) 1994. Sacred Sites, Sacred Places. London: Routledge.

Casey, E.S. 1997 The Fate of Place. Berkeley: U of California Press.

Chidester, D. and E. T. Linenthal (eds) 1995 American Sacred Space. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Chivallon, C. 2001 Religion as space for the expression of Caribbean identity in the United Kingdom, Environment and Planning D-Society & Space 19:4: 461-483

Coleman, S. and J.Eade (eds) 2004 Reframing Pilgrimage: cultures in motion. London: Routledge.

Coleman, S. and J. Elsner 2005 Pilgrimage: past and present: sacred travel and sacred space in the world religions. London: British Museum Press.

Collins, P. 2009 The Ecology and Economy of Urban Religious Space: a Socio-Historical Account of Quakers in Town. In When God Comes to Town: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Religion in Urban Contexts (ed. R. Pinxten and L. Dikomitis). Oxford: Berghahn.

Collins, P. 2007 NHS Hospital ‘Chaplaincies’ in a Multifaith Society. Final Report to NHS Estates (available from author).

Collins, P. 2006 Reading Religious Architecture, in Texts and Religious Contexts (eds. E. Arweck and P. Collins). Aldershot: Ashgate.

Collins, P. 2004 Congregations, Narratives and Identity, in Congregational Studies in the UK: Christianity in a Post-Christian Context in M. Guest, K. Tusting and L. Woodhead (eds.). Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 99-112.

Collins, P. 2003. Storying Self and Others: The Construction of Narrative Identity, Journal of
Politics and Language
, 2(2): 243-65.

Collins, P. 1996 ‘Plaining’: The Social and Cognitive Practice of Symbolization in the Religious Society of Friends, Journal of Contemporary Religion 11(3): 277-288.

Eco, U. 1986 Function and Sign: Semiotics of Architecure, in M. Gottdiener and A.
Ph. Lagopoulos (eds) The City and the Sign: an Introduction to Urban Semiotics. Columbia University Press.

Goffman, E. 1959 The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Penguin: Harmondsworth.

Greene, S.E. 2002 Sacred Sites and the Colonial Encounter: A History of Meaning and Memory in Ghana. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Gubrium, J.F. & J.A. Holstein 2009 Analyzing Narrative Reality. London: Sage.

Hervieu-Leger, D. 2002 Space and Religion: new approaches to religious spatiality in modernity, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 26(1): 99-105.

Hillier, B. and J. Hanson (1984) The Social Logic of Space. Cambridge, Cambridge
University Press.

Hubbard, P. & Kitchin, R. (2010) Key Thinkers on Space and Place. 2nd edition. London: Sage.

Jones, L. 2002 The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture: Experience, Interpretation, Comparison, 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions.

Kedar, B.Z. and R.J. Zwi Werblowsky. eds. 1998 Sacred Space: Shrine, City, Land. New York: New York University Press.

Knott, K. 2005 The location of religion: A spatial analysis. London and Oakville, CA:

Kunin, S.D. 1998 God’s Place in the World: Sacred Spaces and Sacred Place in Judaism. London: Cassell.

Lane, B.C. 2001 Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lukken, G. and M. Searle 1994 Semiotics and Church Architecture. Kampen: Kok Pharos

Markus, T. 1993 Buildings and Power: Freedom and Control in the origin of Modern
Building Types.
 London: Routledge.

Massey, D. (1994) Space, Place and Gender. Cambridge: Polity.

Massey, D. (2005) For Space. London: Sage.

(ed.) Meyer, B. (2010) Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion and the Senses. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Morgan, D. (2005) The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Morgan, D. (ed) 2009 Religion and Material Culture. London: Routledge.

O’Brien, S.J.C. 2008 Well, water, rock: holy wells, mass rocks and reconciling identity in the
Republic of Ireland
, Material Religion 4(3): 326-48.

Pahl, J. 2003 Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces: Putting God in Place. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press.

Paine, C. (ed) 2000 Godly things: museums, objects, and religion. London: Leicester UP.

Stein, S.J. 1992 The Shaker Experience in America. New Haven & London: Yale UP.

Soja, E. (2011) Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. 2nd edition. London: Verso.

Tilley, C. (ed) 2006 Handbook of Material Culture. London: Sage.

Rodwell, Warwick. 1990. The Archaeology of Religious Places: Churches and Cemeteries in Britain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Sharf, R. and E.H. Sharf. 2001 Living Images: Japanese Buddhist Icons in Context. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Smith, J.Z. 1987. To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Spicer, A. and S. Hamilton (eds) 2005 Defining the Holy: Sacred Space in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Stephenson, B. 2008 Luther’s Thesenportal: a case study of a ‘ritual-architectural event’, Material Religion 4(1): 54-85

Taylor, M. 1992 Disfiguring: Art, Architecture and Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tilley, C. et al (eds) 2005 Handbook of Material Culture. London: Sage.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. 1977 Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Tweed, T.A. 2006 Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Whone, H. 1990 Church, monastery, cathedral: An illustrated guide to Christian
 Longmead, Dorset: Element Books.

Discussion questions and exercise

  • What can the study of spaces, objects and materiality add to an understanding of religious subjectivity, practice, institutions or change? Conversely, what might be missed by failing to attend to the material and spatial basis of religion?
  • What new insights might emerge if you ask ‘where’ the particular focus of your research takes place?
  • What theoretical frameworks do we need to make sense of the relationship between social meaning-making and action and the spatial and material contexts in which it takes place? What role should emotion or aesthetics play in such frameworks? Does it even make sense to make a distinction between social action and meaning-making and material and spatial contexts?
  • Exercise: analysing religious spaces (PDF)