Methods of field religious studies

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Topics: Cultures & Civilisations

On 18 April 2019 the ‘Methods of field religious studies: Tools for field analysis’ masterclass and roundtable were held at the Tomsk State University.

The events were organised by the University’s Philosophy Department, together with the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute.

The audience was made up of students, undergraduates, and graduates of humanities departments studying history and the current conditions of religious communities in Russia, as well as practitioners working in the fields of inter-faith and inter-ethnic relations.

The meeting began with a speech by Maxim Mikheev, a DOC research associate, who spoke about the Institute’s history and activities, and explained why the Institute pays so much attention to studying the role of religion in modern society and to issues related to inter-religious dialogue.

Associate Professor at the Tomsk State Teachers University Alexandra Filkina, then presented her study of the ethno-religious communities of Western Siberia, which she conducted in 2011-2012. The objects of this comparative study were the Church of the Last Testament, as well as Anastasievtsy and Anurovtsy communities. Filkina spoke about the methods used in the study and shared her views on the specifics of the researcher position in the process of non-participant observation. The most interesting aspect in the study of these religious groups, according to Filkina, is the dynamics of their development. One of the probable causes of the emergence of isolated religious communities in modern Russia, she said, was the protest of the Soviet intelligentsia against the socio-economic transformations that took place in Russia after the USSR’s collapse. Attention was drawn to one of the peculiarities of such studies, when respondents, answering the researchers’ questions, use certain clichés, since it is often not the first time they have been objects of a study. In this case, the key task of researchers is to circumvent these clichés.

Associate Professor at the Tomsk State University Roman Bykov, who was one of the initiators of the masterclass, shared his experience of conducting field studies of modern religious movements and practices with the example of the interfaith dialogue meetings taking place in Tomsk. Getting to the heart of the matter, he claimed, is a top priority in this type of study. The goal is to find out the true worldview of the person being observed. Bykov spoke about the research methods he used in this project. These include narrative and biographical interviews, participant observation, focus groups, discourse analysis, grounded theory, and dialogue itself as a space for participation and observation. Attention was drawn to specific features characteristic of new religious movements. In particular, the emergence of the out-of-frame (invisible) religiousness phenomenon in recent years was emphasised, as well as the fact that the turnover within new religious movements often reaches 70-80%. Bykov paid attention to a strengthening of cultural and stylistic functions in religion today, when the identity of a huge number of people is becoming increasingly blurred. Bykov pointed to key functions of dialogue at the inter-religious meetings he organises, namely: unifying and creating communicative space; overcoming stereotypes and deep-rooted myths; socialising; and the strengthening of participants’ own worldviews through reflection on their own positions. In conclusion, he noted that the interfaith dialogue area is an indispensable foundation in the study of the religious domain.

Associate Professor of the Theology Department at the Ural State Mining University Alexey Starostin, described the types of sources he uses in the study of Christian and Muslim communities. Statistical and demographic sources, population censuses, and parish accounting records are of special importance. Among the methods used, Starostin mentioned in-depth interviews, reports on visits to religious communities, as well as questionnaires as part of a biographical method. He presented several typologies of believers that are used today, and spoke about practical methods of harmonising ethnic and confessional relations. In this part of the speech, Starostin gave examples of real cooperation of various faith community representatives in resolving a number of social problems. He stressed that one of the tasks of religious studies experts should be promoting harmonisation of relations between representatives of various peoples and religions.

At the end of the masterclass, a roundtable was held, dedicated, besides the major topic of the event, to the issue of the possibilities for young religious studies scholars to apply their knowledge and professional competencies in modern society. Roman Okhotenko, a DOC staff member, spoke about the relevance of these types of experts in the field of ethno-religious relations, as well as in the business sphere. In the ensuing discussion, Roman Bykov focused on the need to combat widespread ignorance in the religious sphere. Attention was also drawn to the lack of relevant experts, both in civil service and among those building relationships within civil society.

During 2019, the DOC is planning to continue its masterclass project with further events on religious studies.