Methods of fieldwork in religious studies

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On 22 November 2018 in Arkhangelsk, Russia, the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute (DOC) partnered with the Northern (Arctic) Federal University (NArFU) to hold a masterclass entitled ‘Methods of field religious studies: tools, field, analysis and interpretation of the results’. The meeting was attended by NArFU lecturers and students of cultural and religious studies. One of the top priorities for DOC in holding events such as these is to strengthen inter-university cooperation.

The event was held within the framework of the “Inter-Ethnic and Inter-Religious Relations” masters program, launched by NArFU this year. ‘Methods of field religious studies’ is the first in a series of seminars and round tables held by the DOC Research Institute in collaboration with leading universities and research centers in Russia and the CIS. Associate researchers from DOC, Alexey Starostin and Roman Bykov, conducted the masterclass.

Alexey Starostin, who is also Associate Professor of the Theology Department at the Ural State Mining University, gave a lecture on the specific features of working with a key type of religious studies sources – statistical and demographic data. Parish registers and census reports were specifically mentioned. The examples were primarily taken from Muslim communities in the Urals region. In addition, Starostin briefed the university audience on existing online resources relevant to religious studies scholars.

Field research methods such as in-depth interviews, ethnographic observation at temples and during religious rituals, questioning as a biographical method, and questioning conducted as part of large-scale sociological research were covered. The features of the questioning process and its interpretation were analysed during the lecture. Starostin discussed the typology of believers applied in the sociology of religion. He stressed the fundamental importance of building trust between the researcher and subject. At the same time, in his understanding, personal involvement in the life of the examined community should be avoided in order to preserve the objectivity of the research, while on the other hand, the researcher must at all times adhere to the principle of not harming the focus of his study.

In conclusion, Starostin spoke about the latest examples of successful practices in ethno-religious relations. As an example, he talked about joint activities conducted by future Orthodox and Muslim clerics in Tatarstan. Such activities can really contribute to rapprochement of people representing different worldviews, in contrast to many official meetings devoted to inter-religious dialogue.

Starostin also made an interesting observation that in the regions of Siberia and the far east of Russia in recent years, people of Central Asian origin have been becoming increasingly relevant Muslim communities.

In the second part of the masterclass, Roman Bykov, Associate Professor of the Department of Sociology at the Tomsk State University, shared with the audience the results of his research on the phenomenon of new religious movements. In his opinion, identifying these movements as sects (the term has negative connotation in Russian language) should be avoided in the research practice, since sects have several characteristic features, such as self-isolation, avoiding any kind of dialogue, and, in the worst cases, a conscious search for the enemy, while this is not usual for new religious movements.

Bykov shared his experience of holding meetings on interfaith dialogue in Tomsk, where representatives of traditional religions take part along with representatives of new religious movements. He also noted that new religious movements are usually characterised by a large turnover of members.

Speaking about the methods of religious studies, Bykov emphasised that during a survey the selection of respondents should be carried out using several criteria simultaneously in order to ensure representativeness of the statistical sampling. A rule that seems obvious, but in practice is often ignored.

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