Researching Female Faith (Routledge, 2018)

Share Icon

Researching Female Faith: Qualitative Research Methods, edited by Nicola Slee, Fran Porter and Anne Phillips, is the second collection of essays that have emerged out of the Symposium. It features 13 Symposium contributors and is now available. 

At the launch on 12th February, 2018, Dr Dawn Llewellyn gave a warm welcome to the book. She remarked: 

“.. this is why this volume is important – researchers and students need to consult publications that lay bare the planning, implementation, analysis and ‘findings’ of a project to learn how to shape their own scholarship. In addition, authors need to show their assumptions and justify their choices so their work is open to evaluation, critique, and so their readers know it is trustworthy. I’ve wanted a collection that deals specifically with the theory and practice of undertaking feminist methodologies and methods in female faith for a while now, for me and my students, and I think the editors are right when they comment that no publication until now has had this focus.” 

Her comments are available in full below.

Book Launch Response by Dawn Llewellyn

“It is with great pleasure that I can be here today to be part of the celebrations to launch Researching Female Faith: Qualitative Research Methods edited by Nicola Slee, Fran Porter and Anne Phillips. This volume is inspired by and reflects research by members of the Faith Live of Women and Girls Symposium and it is quite a remarkable achievement that this is the second collection to emerge from this network of women. As I commented during the (at the time) anonymous reviewing process: Slee, Porter and Phillips have done it again, and I am delighted they have! And there are several reasons that I genuinely pleased this volume is hot off the press, on the market, and being commended today.

First, as the editors remark in the introduction, one of the book’s aims is to ‘demystify’ the research process: from the inception of a research question, to the consideration of ontology and epistemologies that frame feminist qualitative work, the selection of methods (interviews, social media, ethnography, poetry, auto ethnography, visual methodologies); making sense of data; negotiating power; to discussing hierarchies and research ethics. Too often the research process is a mystery, this is despite the postgraduate training that tells us to be transparent and to draw out the limits of our design in our thesis methodology chapters.  It is not always the case that monographs in social science, feminist theology, feminist religious studies and other related subjects feature detailed, rich discussions that set the conditions for the work generated, the argument evinced, and the conclusions reached. While there are exceptions (Slee’s Patterns and Processes), even in feminist qualitative research that usually attempts to write the researcher in, the broader methodological conversations are too often edited down or edited out, briefly covered in an Introduction, or a particular methodological issue is unanchored from its original project and published in specialist publication. But – and this is why this volume is important – researchers and students need to consult publications that lay bare the planning, implementation, analysis and ‘findings’ of a project to learn how to shape their own scholarship. In addition, authors need to show their assumptions and justify their choices so their work is open to evaluation, critique, and so their readers know it is trustworthy. I’ve wanted a collection that deals specifically with the theory and practice of undertaking feminist methodologies and methods in female faith for a while now, for me and my students, and I think the editors are right when they comment that no publication until now has had this focus.

Second, this volume picks up and builds on the first collection, The Faith Lives of Women and Girls, which showcased a range of research in feminist practical theology and pastoral theology. In her review of Faith Lives, Elaine Graham notes that in that publication more space is given to examples and case studies of female engagements with faith than critical reflection on what understanding of ‘feminist’ drive the book, or an analysis of the methodologies drawn on by the contributors. In Researching Female Faith feminist methodologies particular to Christian Studies are brought into sharp focus. The volume demonstrates that while there is no one feminist methodology, feminist research does operate in certain ‘parameters’, as Maynard and Purvis have suggested. The chapters here demonstrate a political commitment to  hearing women’s experiences via non-exploitative methods, they question gender based discrepancies that shape women’s negotiation of Christianity, they disrupt  binary oppositions between researcher and researched, known and unknown, political and personal, cognition and emotion, eschew the idea of value-neutral research, and  accept that conclusions are partial, meditated, and situational.

Third, like all good books, from the chapters, I learnt or realised something new. From Anne Phillips’ chapter on participative research into the lives of girls becoming women, I was reminded that as researchers we are always, as Graham Harvey has also suggested, guests in their space. For Philips, is was the realisation that spending ‘downtime’ with her participants (BBQs and get-together) in their space can build relationships and minimise power relations in more meaningful ways than an interview setting or focus group.

Nicola Slee’s, Manon James’, and Jan Berry’s contributions are rich examples that feminist research is fictive and constructed by the researcher and participants. While not a charade nor deceit, the way stories can be told – through poetry or autoethnography in these cases – is an artifice, a device, and an art. Moreover, rather than offering an ‘objective’ account of an experience by presenting ‘facts’ that offer a ‘true’ report of what happened, when and to whom, these chapters privilege the meaning of experiences, and suggest that it is the interpretation of what happens in gendered faith lives that is provocative, unsettling, that speaks back to received orthodoxies, and generates new knowledge.

One of the main anxieties my students have about their work is how to do data analysis and how to move from raw material to generating new frameworks and theory. I’ve tried teaching students coding, indexing, thematic analysis. It is really hard work to describe and reflect on the nuts and bolts of data analysis. Well, I no longer have to struggle: Helen Collins, Janet Eccles, Sue Shooter, and Kate Massey have done it for me in very interesting and informative ways. Shooter’s highly sensitive research on the experiences of the survivors of abuse with faith gives an excellent overview of grounded theory and NVivo (perhaps one of the clearest and concise explanations I’ve come across). Eccles, in her work on older women’s piety, and Collins’ research into the experiences of mothers in Charismatic worship, warn us of the dangers of trying to map, uncritically, established models and concepts in theology and religious studies, generated from masculine and male norms of knowledge on to women’s piety. Rather than clinging onto methodologies and typologies that seemed to hold too firmly to ‘blokey’ rigid distinctions and paradigms, they both chart the sometimes risky and nervy process (we all have to go through it!) of trusting our interpretations of the women’s voices we have gathered and letting our analysis lead the way. Massey’s work with Christian women mothers dually called to motherhood and work also discusses her approach to data analysis. I was really struck by her simple but effective assertion that the researcher is a reader of texts and therefore our emotional, embodied response to the transcript is a crucial part of the reflexive process.  As I’m someone who has worked on feminist reader response theory and qualitative reading practices, who privileges reading as affective, transformative, and embodied as well as a cognitive, hermeneutical process, I sort of feel I should have realised this a long time ago.

My teaching and approach to data analysis has also shifted following Alison Woolley’s chapter. Like the extant research Woolley critiques, I’ve often read ‘silence’ negatively because I’ve asked an awkward or badly phrased question, because participants are giving up or withdrawing, or because I’ve silenced them in an uncomfortable use of my power.  But Woolley opens up new creative ways to interview and transcribe that reveal the potency and generative silences for participants and researchers – in a project where the object of research – women’s spiritual practices of silence – aligns with the process of analysis.

Fran Porter’s chapter ‘Sometimes you just need a question’ made me realise I’ve been a little stuck in my ways and stayed clear of structured approaches – even distrusted them slightly – in favour of semi-structured interviews; thinking it best replicated collaborative and participant driven conversations. Now I know that structured questions do not mean structured answers and participants are still agentic in the process. Participant’s agency is, of course, a central theme in the volume and the chapters design various strategies to maximise their participants’ input. In her work on young adults, religion and sexuality using visual methodologies, Sarah-Jane Page discusses how making video diaries might appear to offer participants safety and control over the generation of data, yet participants can resist that freedom and still feel proscribed. For Kim Wasey, using social media enabled participants to feedback on the research she disseminated via her blog on women’s meanings relating to Communion.   Sometimes immediately, her informants commented or clarified on the themes Wasey identified as emerging. In this project the researcher is not the sole custodian nor interpreter of the knowledge generated.

Power shifts in the research setting between researchers and the individuals, communities and organisations we work with. As Jenny Morgans’ thoughtful and creative use of reflexivity reveals, when participants’ agency is underestimated, challenging situations arise. While research can put the researcher in a powerful position, it can also leave her open and vulnerable in ways that sometimes threaten the project (and this is an often neglected part of feminist methodologies). Research, Morgan suggests, is personally challenging and we are rarely left unchanged or untroubled by encounters in the field, sometimes long after we leave.

It is usual in such responses to try to raise some critical reflections or suggest avenues that are opened up by the publication. Rather than do that, I’ve got some ideas for your next volume – you should really go for a quartet, at least. In the Introduction, the authors recall Slee’s three fold development of feminist methodologies:

  • 1. Critical (feminist researchers called out the androcentricism of dominant research approaches that neglected or subsumed women’s experiences against the male norm)
  • 2. Constructivist phase developed new approaches, taking feminist standpoint epistemologies as the primary mode of working and engineering participatory techniques
  • 3. Diversification – a broader consideration of research, an inclusion of quant approaches that had previously been viewed with suspicion, and an recognition that feminist research practices are fluid, plural.

Researching Female Faith focuses on qualitative approaches but if diversification characterises feminist methodologies in this third stage, as Slee identifies, is there room to think through quantitative insights into female faith? What can we learn from hearing about feminist research that considers broad pattern and behaviours, beliefs and opinions? In some ways, both volumes to date have tended to think through small-scale case studies, and the researchers tend to favour conversational methods like interviews and focus groups with individual women. I’m wondering what challenges and questions arise when research into female faith uses mixed methods, the scope of techniques extends further, or attention turns to communities of practice, organisations, and institutions rather than women’s individual journeying.    

Diversification can also refer to the range of religious identities encompassing the category of ‘female faith’. Although this evaluation of feminist methodologies will be of interest to researchers in the social sciences, women’s studies and feminist studies, sociology and anthropology, this volume will speak particularly to researchers in Christian studies, practical theology and pastoral care. Yet, living female faith means incorporating Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, BAME, LGBTQI* voices and perspectives on class, age, and disability. Or, where is the place for considering ‘spirituality’ outside of the Christian framework, or the development of non-religious female identities? In what other ways can we recognise the plural, multiple, intersectional realities of religious lives?

The authors’ chapters have been, at least in part, shared, shaped, and disseminated through the meetings of the Faith Lives of Women and Girls Symposiums, through the collegial and critical giving of papers, the formal discussion that takes place in panels, and the informal conversations at coffee, lunch, and occasionally, fairly late night chocolate and wine-fuelled gatherings in common rooms and kitchens. The work has then been carefully and skilfully curated by the editors to capturing a dynamic range of scholarship. This truly is a feminist endeavour by feminist scholars investigating female faith – many congratulations to all involved.”

Dr Dawn Llewellyn

Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Chester

12th February 2018