Please read the description of the Religion ethnography carefully and then ask me in class to explain anything that isn’t…

Please read the description of the Religion ethnography carefully and then ask me in class to explain anything that isn’t clear. You can also email me with questions.

At the end there is a short list of possible sites for the ethnography: Sikh, Islamic, Jewish, Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist. Shumei. There are other religions and many other sites. Bahai is an interesting religion but you have to be invited to attend by a member.  Mormon the same.  If you have access to a Santeria or similar ceremony, great!

To make the project worthwhile choose a site as different from your own background as you can. If you have a Christian or Catholic background do not do your paper on any kind of Christian or Catholic service.

You are welcome to attend a non-English language service as long as you understand the language being used.

Be sure to okay your choice with me. Some places that don’t work for this project are Scientology, the Self Realization Fellowship, the Kabbalah Center, SGI Buddhist, Hare Krishna.


Attend a religious activity that you’re curious about and would like to explore.  You must attend a service, not simply visit a religious site. Examples: a mosque, temple, synagogue, gurdwara. You can probably find an interesting place of worship near where you live or work.

It’s always a good idea to phone or email the place of worship before you attend.

Research methods must include participant/observation and informal conversation. One slightly more formal interview is desirable.

Be absolutely sure to allow time to stay after the service for food, lunch, other refreshment, or informal gathering. This may well be the most important part of your experience and will enable you to answer the question, “What meaning does this place and this service have for the participants?

You must go some place you’ve never been to before. Do NOT choose your own tradition or somewhere you’re even a bit familiar with. Choose somewhere entirely new and different.

The important thing is to come to the service as an outsider, with the eyes and ears of an anthropologist and take note of everything. Use the skills you’ve learned in this class.

You can attend alone or with a co-researcher or two from the class. Best, you can be the guest(s) of a classmate or someone else you know and discuss the event with them. Invite a classmate or two to attend a service from your tradition.

Do not write about an event you attended in the past. But you can use past experiences for comparison and reflection.

It is almost never appropriate to jot down notes during a religious service. Better, write everything you remember immediately after the event. Get sufficient detail to write what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “thick”, or rich description.

In writing your paper use terms we’ve discussed in class and think about connections to the reading we’ve done and films we’ve seen.

OUTLINE: Include each of these sections.

Title Page, or top of page: Name of paper (pick something creative!), your name, name and time of the course, instructor’s name, date.

Introduction: Where, when and with whom did you carry out your research?

Data collection/field research methods: What methods did you use to collect your data? (Participant-observation? Conversation? Informal interviews? Formal interview? All of these.)

Narrative description: Based on your notes write a fully developed and detailed narrative about your experience and the event.  If you like, you can tell the story chronologically, starting with your decision to attend the particular site, your preparation and trip from home etc.

Then paint a picture and capture the feel of the event. Describe the rituals, ritual items, the physical environment/how space is used, cultural rules/protocols, and anything else you learn from your observations/conversations/interviews. 

In particular:

Spatial organization: Describe the physical environment and how space is used.

Material culture: Note ritual objects, incense, art and architecture, materials, colors.

The service: Describe the service, including liturgy prayers, reading, sermon, rituals.

Embodiment: How is ritual ‘embodied’? What body movement (for example clapping, bowing, swaying, holding hands, dancing) is involved? Notice body language, gesture and gaze.

Notice what participants do and how they dress. Notice interactions and behaviors, gestures, facial expressions, physical appearances, the tone of conversation. Get a sense of the emotional mood and tone of the service.

If relevant, notice as much as you can about language use both during the service and in the social gathering that accompanies it: what language or languages do the participants use? Do they switch between languages? Do they mix them? In a multilingual setting can you tell who uses which language – how different age group or genders use language?

Do people tell stories? What kind and to whom?

If relevant, note the role of the leader (preaching, call and response and so on) and his or her relationship to the congregation? What about the relationships between participants?

What about children? How are they treated? How do they react?

What role does verbal, artistic expression, poetry, poetic language and liturgy play? What is the role of breath, silence, speaking, chanting, singing? What about ‘speaking in tongues’ or trance?

Self-reflection: Reflect on your relationship to the event. Make special note of your part in the action. What is your role as ‘ethnographer’? Does your presence affect the service or the participants? 

And then, how did this research experience affect you? Did you feel strange? Did you find yourself being judgmental? Why might this be? Your reactions can teach you about the way you have been influenced by your own culture and/or religion.

Analysis: What is the MEANING of the service (the place, the occasion, the content, the community) to the people who attend? What needs does it satisfy and how does it satisfy them?

You can start by speculating on this based on your observations but the paper is not complete without data from the participants themselves.

Interviews and conversations to explore meaning for participants. Speak to people who are participants in the service – ideally both leaders and community members. Conversations with  community members and the data you collect from these are an essential and required part of the project.

Talk to at least two but preferably more participants to get their ‘take’ on the event. How do they explain or interpret it? Why do they attend? What do they ‘get’ from it?  What meaning does it have for them? What needs does it fulfill?

What do the rituals mean to them? Remember that ritual activities and symbols can have multiple meanings and interpretations.

Note especially what significance the service and membership in the community has for the particular group of people who attend. For example, does it fulfill needs for a particular immigrant community? For a particular age group?

Areas for Further Research: If you were to return, what would you focus on? What would you like to know more about?  This is an important element of the paper.  Be sure to think about it and write about it.

Bibliography: Include people you interviewed and any outside sources (Internet, books, articles) you may have referred to.

Photography or drawings: You can supplement your written ethnography with photographs taken during the event or, if that’s inappropriate, photographs of the setting, yourself and friends in the setting, participants, community members etc.

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