Research Methods for the Study of Religion

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The politics and ethics of research

Researchers in the study of religion are increasingly familiar with complying with the requirements of professional codes of research ethics. Beyond these requirements, often originally designed with medical research in mind, lie broader ethical and political questions about the research process and the role of research as a particular kind of social intervention.


Sophie Gilliat-Ray explores how the ethical and political nature of research can be understood in both a broad and narrow sense, as well as the importance of taking seriously issues of power.

Key reading

Robert Orsi (2005) Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp.177-204.

Orsi explores moral assumptions embedded within the study of religion, and explores in what sense research in this field can be understood as a moral process of encounter and reflection.

Alan Peshkin (1984) ‘Odd man out: the participant observer in an absolutist setting’, Sociology of Education, 57(4), 254-64.

Peshkin’s account of his experience of conducting fieldwork in a conservative religious school demonstrates the complex dynamics of power in the relationships that researchers build with their participants. It raises difficult questions about the degree of authenticity and deception involved in fieldwork, as well as the primary responsibilities of the researcher as an academic and a human being.
Andrew Sayer (2009) ‘Who’s afraid of critical social science?’, Current Sociology, 57(6), 767-786.

The author discusses the nature of ‘critique’ in social science, and presents a normative framework for social research.


PDF version of this bibliography can also be downloaded.

Back, L. (2007), The Art of Listening. Oxford and New York: Berg

Bolognani, M. (2007). Islam, Ethnography and Politics: Methodological Issues in researching amongst West Yorkshire Pakistanis in 2005. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 10, 279-293.

Borland, K. (1991) “That’s Not What I Said: Interpretive Conflict in Oral Narrative Research” reprinted in Perks, R. and Thompson, A (eds.), (2006) The Oral History Reader, second edition, Oxon: Routledge pp. 310-321.

Des Chene, M. (1998) ‘Fate, Domestic Authority, and Women’s Wills’ in (eds.)Debra Skinner, Alfred Pach III, and Dorothy Holland, Selves in Time and Place: Identities, Experience, and History in Nepal, Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield, pp. 19-50.

Dickson-Swift V., James E.L. and Liamputtong P. (2008) Understanding Sensitve Research in Health and Social Sciences:  Managing Boundaries, Emotions and Risks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.33-54.

Flyvbjerg, B. (2001) Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Enquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gilliat-Ray, S. (2010) ‘Being There: shadowing a British Muslim Hospital Chaplain’ Culture and Religion, 11(4): 413-432

Hammersley M., (2006) Taking Sides in Social Research: Essays on Partisanship and Bias. Oxon: Routledge, pp.16-34

Hopkins, P.E. (2007) ‘Positionalities and Knowledge: Negotiating Ethics in Practice’, ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, Vol. 6, No. 3, pp. 386-94.

Liamputtong R., (2007) Researching the Vulnerable. London: Sage, pp. 23-46.

McCarthy Brown, K (2001) Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Said, E. (1996) Representations of the Intellectual. London: Vintage.

Sands, R., Bourjolly, J. & Roer-Strier, D. (2007). Cross Cultural Barriers in Research Interviewing. Qualitative Social Work, 6, 353-372.

Shah, S. (2004). The researcher/interviewer in intercultural context: A social intruder!. British Educational Research Journal, 30, 549-575.

Smith, K. (2006) ‘Problematising power relations in “Elite” interviews, Geoforum, Vol. 37, No. 4, 643 – 653.
Thapar-Björkert, S. and M. Henry (2004) ‘Reassessing the research relationship: location, position and power in fieldwork accounts.’ International  Journal of Social Research Methodology 7(5): 363-381.

Wright Mills, C. (1959) The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press.

Discussion questions

  • In what sense, if any, do you see your research as a moral or political activity?
  • Should a clear distinction be made between academic research and political activism?
  • In what ways is power implicated in your research site, or through your work as a researcher?
  • Read Alan Peshkin (1984) ‘Odd Man Out: The Participant Observer in an Absolutist Setting.’ Sociology of Education 57(4): 254-264. Do you agree that deception is, to a lesser or greater extent, an inevitable part of the fieldwork process? In fieldwork, how should we negotiate their responsibilities as both researchers seeking to generate effective knowledge and as moral agents?

Code of Research Ethics