Reflections on Surveying Religion Online: Perils and Promise?

by Gladys Ganiel, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast.

I presented the results of my surveys of religion on the island of Ireland this weekend at the annual conference of the Sociological Association of Ireland (May 7-9, 2010 at Queen’s University in Belfast). All three of the papers presented were about religion, and all three utilized quantitative data of some sort.

Prof. Tom Inglis of University College Dublin, one of the leading sociologists of religion in Ireland, commented that he is increasingly frustrated with the perils of survey questions when it comes to asking people about their faith.

Survey questions about religion often ask people if they believe in God, heaven, hell, sin, etc.; or to quantify the frequency of their religious practice. These measures have been important for helping sociologists to chart the ‘decline’ of religion in the West. But as Inglis pointed out, such questions do little to give us in-depth understanding of how people think about ‘meaning of life’ questions.

Supplemental qualitative interviewing is often a good method for complementing religious survey results with more nuanced perspectives.

But is it possible to include a built-in qualitative component in quantitative surveys of religion? I have experimented with this in my current research on religion in Ireland. This involved developing online surveys for faith leaders and laypeople, which included a range of conventional multiple choice/tick box questions, coupled with open ended questions where people had the opportunity to ‘write in’ responses to amplify their responses or make entirely new points.

The online data-gathering method provided people with the time and space, if they were inclined, to type thoughtful and sometimes lengthy responses. Commenting on these surveys, Prof. John Brewer of the University of Aberdeen highlighted the importance of these ‘free text spaces’:

“…the resulting fervour to write comments in free text spaces gives us a wealth of qualitative data that surveys of any kind do not normally disclose. Let me suggest that the free text will end up as important as the statistics for this survey.” (Click here to read further.)

For example, the survey questions focused on religious approaches to diversity/immigration, reconciliation and ecumenism. These are topics about which there are few agreed definitions. So the open ended questions provided people with the opportunity to define reconciliation and ecumenism for themselves – or to tell us that they thought that these issues weren’t all that important!

The blending of the quantitative and the qualitative within the survey format may not be possible in all large-scale surveys of religion. But I think that it is a promising way forward, especially when used in small-scale, online surveys on religious topics. For example, my surveys of religion in Ireland received responses from more than 700 faith leaders and 900 laypeople – far more than I would have had time or opportunity to interview.

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One Response to Reflections on Surveying Religion Online: Perils and Promise?

  1. Pingback: Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism: More Research Results Now Available « Gladys Ganiel

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