BASR 2019

This week saw the annual conference for the British Association for the Study of Religions, hosted at Leeds Trinity University.

Dr Suzanne Owen and Prof Bettina Schmidt welcome conference delegates

I have been a regular attendee/presenter at the BASR since 2014. It is always an enjoyable conference for a number of reasons: it is an invigorating start to the academic year, provides an encouraging atmosphere for both PhD students and Early Career Researchers, and is an opportunity to hear about the work of researchers across the indisciplinary field of the Study of Religions. This year’s conference was no different. The theme was ‘Visualising Cultures: Media, Technology and Religion’, which allowed for a wide range of papers relating to topics pertatining to technology, various forms of media, and online religion.

Papers I really enjoyed include, but are by no means limited to:

S. Jonathon O’Donnell on Nehphilim and Demonology.
Stefanie Sinclair and John Maiden on exploring european teenagers’ understanding of religion.
Jenny Butler on the relationship between Pagans, Witches, and media.
Liam Sutherland on Interfaith Scotland.
George Chryssides discussing Jehovah’s Witnesses and media.
Vivian Asimos on horror storytelling online/Reddit.
Stephen Gregg on the relationship between Stage Magicians, Mediums, and Spiritualists.
Angela Puca on Italian Shamanism and social media.
Jonathan Tuckett on video games defining religion
Also an excellent roundtable on research ethics – specifically the BASR’s newly developed code of research ethics.

I also got the opportunity to present some of my own research on an aspect of Scientology that has recently interested me alongside my PhD research on Free Zone Scientologies – how the Church of Scientology’s STAND (Scientologists Taking Action Against Discrimination) campaign and the notion of religious ‘legitimacy’ has seen a shift in their relationship with various forms of media.

A common theme in this conference was religion and the Internet, but more specifically conversations surrounding the issue of conducting fieldwork on the Internet. Online ethnography is something I have engaged with in my own research and have found to be very beneficial – not simply in terms of conducting interviews through online communication, but studying groups and communities that exist and interact exclusively on the Internet. For online groups of Free Zone Scientologists whom I have studied, for example, their online presence is not simply a ‘side-project’, but is at the core of how they interact and practise Scientology with other Freezoners. With the continuously growing popularity of the Internet and social media communication, online ethnography (particularly the research ethics involved) is becoming a greater focus for scholars of religion (and the wider Humanities and Social Sciences). In the terms of my own research, I approach online interviews with the same ethical standards and methodology as I do ‘face-to-face’ interviews. Yet judging by several of the conversations at this year’s conference, it seems that there is still some trepidation and surprise amongst some scholars towards engaging with online ethnography as a viable research method. As my colleague and fellow-delegate Vivian Asimos has since remarked, this is “essentially the same as expressing surprise that we can study people”. As scholars we often speak of mediatization, and I believe that the growing presence of online communities (be it through social media, forums, etc) is arguably the most significant example of 21st century mediatization. Exploring what people do on the Internet is becoming an increasingly important (and in several cases, essential) aspect of contemporary fieldwork. This year’s BASR conference demonstrated a number of ways in which scholars have used such methods in exciting and cutting-edge ways, and has hopefully encouraged others to help pave the way in this approach towards the Study of Religions.

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