Assignment 2: Field Observation
Students must choose one different religious group or organization to visit and observe on self-guided field trips, take “field notes,” and write a 4-5 page report. This will involve attending one of their services or gatherings and taking notes about their beliefs, rituals, services, organizational structures, etc. Students may not choose to do the religious tradition(s) within which they were raised or with which they are very familiar–try to find completely different religious traditions (e.g., if you are or were raised Jewish, do Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Islamic or other groups).
Collecting Your Data
1. Choose a religious community and make contact. You might ask any religious friends or acquaintances of yours for suggestions. You may want to call the congregation or religious group, explaining that you are doing a field trip for a course, and ask permission to visit their service or meeting.
2. Attend the religious meeting or service. Dress appropriately and consider bringing a token donation. Be respectful. Under no circumstances may your presence, observations, or possible questions cause harm or discomfort for those you are observing.
3. Always be open and honest with those you are studying about who you are and what you want. If anyone asks why you are there, simply tell them that you are an observer as part of a college course on religion and that attendance at and observance of several services is required.
4. Participate in the service itself only to the degree that you are comfortable doing so.
5. Pay attention to everything you see, hear, touch, smell. Try to exercise “sympathetic understanding” (what Max Weber called “Verstehen”) in relation to those you are observing. Try to get inside their world, to see how it feels and looks and makes sense from their perspective. At the same time (here’s the tricky part), try to maintain enough “distance” so that you don’t miss all of the things you should be observing and recording. Also, as if that’s not enough, pay explicit attention to yourself as an observer, to your reactions to and feelings about your visit.
6. You should take as many “field notes” on your observations as possible, and as close to the time of your observations as possible. Scribble “memory flag” notes, if appropriate, during the meetings, if it’s not distracting or obtrusive. Otherwise, write down everything you can remember about your observations as quickly after the meeting as possible. This may take an hour or so to be thorough. Your notes don’t have to be highly organized. At this stage, you don’t need to be doing a major theoretical analysis; just record your many impressions as you are conscious of them.
7. Type your field notes. You will be required to include your “field notes” with your report; note: these do not count towards your 5 page requirement.
8. Pay attention to: Physical Setting and Artifacts, Demographics, Meeting Style, Narratives, Sermon or Homily, Relational Norms, Leadership and Authority, Central Theme, and Coherence and Contradictions
Writing the Reports
All reports should be 4-5 pages long, and must contain these distinct parts:
1. Your report title should tell what group you visited, where, and when. Make sure to include your name.
2. In one paragraph, briefly describe your experience of participant observation. How did you react to the experience, subjectively, and how might that have colored your perceptions and analysis? Were you engaged? In wonder? Bored? Confused? Did you feel at home or out of place? Comfortable or ill at ease? Were there any difficulties? Weird situations? Use this section to make sure you pay attention to your own role in the experience.
3. The main body of your report should describe the religious group and service you observed. Write-up the detail of the service you observed in one of two ways:
1) in chronological order clearly integrating each of the key themes and questions you were prompted to consider during your observations: meeting style; narratives; sermon/homily; relational norms; leadership and authority; central theme; coherence and contradiction
2) by key theme, addressing the questions identified for each theme in the guidelines, and breaking down the entire service through these themes (the chronology of the service should still be clear with this approach); include subtitles with this approach
4. Choose one topic or issue from the class readings and concisely analyze that issue or problem as you see it at work in the group you studied. [hint: this is analyzing one sociologically-relevant aspect of your observations].
Examples of appropriate issues might be: accommodation or resistance to secular modernity; faith-commitment reinforcement; distinctive gender relations; the functioning of authority; legitimation for inequality; plausibility structures; theodicy; legitimation for social conflict; growth strategies; conversion mechanisms, etc. There are, of course, many others.
Which you choose will depend on the group, your observations, and your interests. I encourage you, however, to focus on things other than formal beliefs–such as interactions, context, moods, rituals, objects, relations, practices, etc. In any case, your analysis must make specific reference to and use of an author or theorist or theory that we have studied in class.
5. Attach your “field notes” from your visit. These assignments should be submitted as ONE document: essay first, followed by any references, and finally your field notes.
Required report format: reports must be printed in Times Roman or Arial font, 11 point size, 1 inch margins on all sides; APA reference format.
(Adapted from Syllabi and Instructional Materials for Sociology of Religion [3rd ed.], edited by Madeleine Cousineau,, American Sociological Association, Wash., DC, in cooperation with Association for the Sociology of Religion, 1998.)
For tips on conducting this field observation, please copy and paste this link to a PowToon presentation I made or open it up through the attachment I provided.