Research Methods for the Study of Religion

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Being clear about the criteria we use for evaluating what is rigorous and valid research is important for our ability to think critically about our own research, as well as other research we draw upon. In some important respects these criteria vary across epistemological and methodological traditions. But there are also basic issues about the design of research questions and identifying appropriate evidence that are common to all of these.

Discussion paper

Steve Bruce identifies qualities which define effective and ineffective research.

Listen to his talk on ‘Why we need a social science of religion’.

Key reading

Steve Bruce (2009) ‘The importance of social science in the study of religion’, Fieldwork in Religion, 4, pp.8-29.

Bruce argues for greater clarity about what different kinds of data are needed in order to advance different kinds of academic argument, critiques unsubstantiated claims by researchers and makes the case for the particular value of statistical research.

Bent Flyvbjerg (2001) Making Social Science Matter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.25-37.

Flyvbjerg critiques the claim of positivist social science to be able to generate predictive or explanatory theory in ways similar to natural science on the grounds that it fails to take sufficient account of the contextual nature of social knowledge. He advances an alternative view of rigorous social science in terms of the study of values, meanings and practices operative in particular contexts.


Evaluating the quality of knowledge generated through research can involve thinking about issues of epistemology and theories of social life that are explored in the philosophy of social science, the nature of rigorous research design, and specific criteria of quality associated with particular methodological and theoretical approaches. The following reading list includes sources representing each of these areas.

PDF version of this bibliography can also be downloaded.

Benton, T. & Craib, I. (2001) Philosophy of Social Science: The Philosophical Foundations of Social Thought. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Bhaskar, R. (2009) Critical Realism: A Brief Introduction. London: Routledge.

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

Denzin, N. (2003) Performative Ethnography: Critical Pedagogy and the Politics of Culture. London: Sage, pp.106-30.

Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (2002) The Qualitative Inquiry Reader. London: Sage, especially Part 5.

Hollis, M. (2002) The Philosophy of Social Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mason, J. (2002) Qualitative Researching. London: Sage, especially pp.173-204.

Moses, J. & Knutsen, T. (2007) Ways of Knowing: Competing Methodologies in Social and Political Research. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Riessman, C. K. (2008) Narrative Methods for the Human Sciences. London: Sage, pp.183-200.

Ruane, J. (2005) Essentials of Research Methods. Oxford: Blackwell.

Sarantakos, S. (2005) Social Research. 3rd edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillian, pp.83-99.

Sayer, A. (1992) Method in Social Science. London: Routledge.

Smith, J.K. & Deemer, D.K. (2000) ‘The problem of criteria in the age of relativism, in (eds.) N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln,
Handbook of Qualitative Research, 2nd edition, London: Sage, pp.877-96.

Yin, R. (2009) Case Study Research. 3rd edition. London: Sage, pp.185-90.

Discussion questions

  • What criteria do you use to judge the quality of a piece of research?
  • To what extent is it possible to have criteria of validity and rigour that are common to all forms of research, or are these criteria dependent on the particular methodological framework within which a study is conducted?
  • What kind of knowledge are you generating through your research (e.g. description, explanation, interpretation)?
  • What are the implications of this for how its quality might be evaluated?
  • To what extent is rigour a matter of epistemological coherence, appropriate research design or ethical practice?

Exercise: Summarise in a sentence or two what you intend to discover through your project, and if possible phrase this in the form of a question. Then think about what specific forms of evidence you need to collect so that anyone could be confident that you would be able to answer this question.