Research Methods for the Study of Religion

Featured story

Purple horizon
Picture by Michael Holden

Well-designed research can benefit from the creative use of different research methods, including both quantitative and qualitative approaches. The choice of methods should be made with close reference to a project’s research questions and the nature of data generated by different methods should be reflected upon. Thought also needs to be given as to when different methods are best used in the process of conducting a particular study.

Discussion paper

Linda Woodhead explores key issues in designing research, including how to choose and combine specific methods.

Key reading

Alan Bryman (2008) Social Research Methods. 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

A good introduction to key elements of research design, and includes a section on mixed methods research.

Jennifer Mason (2002) Qualitative Researching. London: Sage.

This widely-used qualitative methods text again provides another good overview of key elements of research design.

John Cresswell and Vicki Clark (2010) Designing and Conducting Mixed Methods Research. 2nd edition. London: Sage.

Discusses different models of mixed methods research, as well as how to present and evaluate mixed methods research.

(ed.) Linda Woodhead (2012) Innovative Methods in the Study of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Contains chapters discussing a wide range of methodological issues and approaches in the study of religion, with reflective accounts by authors about the implications of these in relation to their own research.

Andrew Sayer (2000) Realism and Social Science. London: Sage.

A sophisticated introduction to epistemology from a critical realist perspective.

Ole Riis and Linda Woodhead (2010) A Sociology of Religious Emotion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Makes the case for taking issues of emotion more seriously in research on religion, and includes a methodological appendix on studying religious emotion.


Formulating a research plan

1. Imagine that you have been asked to carry out a study of religion in Banbury (or any comparable medium-sized town that you are familiar with). You have been given fairly unlimited resources – enough to ‘get the job done’. You have also been given free rein in how to clarify the question, though the overall aim is to provide a good understanding of the ‘complete picture’. How would you go about putting together a research plan?

2. Answer each question in turn:

  • What exactly am I trying to find out?
  • What existing studies can I draw on?
  • What theories are most relevant?
  • What are the key concepts? Are they appropriate? How could they be supplemented?
  • What expertise do I need? What sort of a team? How will it be managed?
  • How long will the research last? What are the main stages? What will be the ‘outputs’?
  • What are the main methods to use?
  • How will these methods be combined?
  • Are there any new methods or combination of methods which can improve understanding?
  • What are the ethical risks and opportunities and what are the main ‘goods’ to achieve and how?
  • How can I ensure reliability and validity?
  • What epistemologies are underlying and are they compatible with the theories and methods?
  • What would count as conclusions? Will my design enable me to substantiate them?

3. When you have thought about all these questions, draw up a research plan which addresses all the 9 1/2 elements of research design concisely.

4. Now, test the design. Pretend you are a ruthless critic and find as many objections to the research design as you can. State what modifications may be needed.

5. Consider three things which might occur in the course of the research which might make it necessary to alter the research design, and list the changes which could be made in response to each ‘surprise’. Consider how each element of the research design might be affected.