Thursday, February 19, 2009

Online Dissemination of Research Findings

So I recently applied for a job as a Research Associate on the ESRC/AHRC funded Religion and Society Programme, based at Lancaster (Linda is the Director). There were 61 applicants shortlisted and 5 of us that were interviewed, so I was chuffed to get to the interview stage. It was a great experience - a real confidence boost - and its good to know that when I have submitted my thesis I'll be a good candidate for other RA positions / lectureships / research funding.

Part of the interview day involves giving a presentation on how I would disseminate the findings from the large number of diverse projects funded by the Programme. I thought I'd blog about it a bit here, as it was a very interesting exercise. Here you can view the PowerPoint presentation I did.

I used research about online reading behaviour to suggest tips for successful online dissemination that informed my suggestion for how the Programme could thematically present project findings. Important factors included the use of subject headings and subheadings, and reports summarising and synthesising findings for different website audiences.

Much of the knowledge about how users read online comes from studies by Jakob Nielsen (of, an expert in web usability. Of particular interest are his conclusions that users seek immediate gratification, scan pages rather than read them, don't scroll down to read longer pages, and want to exercise agency in navigation.

These findings suggest that successful online dissemination of research

  • scans easily (meaning paragraphs are short, key words are highlighted, and further information is bullet-pointed),
  • is concise (online text should be half the word count of print text),
  • and is journalistic (written in an inverted pyramid starting with conclusions, then key information, and finally background information so the user can determine how much detail to go into).

Successful online dissemination also

  • helps users determine the value of a page immediately (i.e. whether or not the contents will be of use to them)
  • is user-driven (so that users exercise agency in how the site is navigated and information is approached and accessed)
  • and breaks down information by subject (so that there are no excessively long pages). [I obviously haven't mastered this last point in my blog!!!]

All these devices are geared towards attracting users and convincing them of the value of printing off longer documents.

Based on these insights, I developed a
strategy for the thematic disseminations of findings from the projects commissioned by the Programme.

I suggested that, firstly, there should be an easily scan-able list of
hyperlinked primary headings which enable users to choose how to approach the data. For this particular brief I chose 12 primary headings, which were:

  • the 7 Programme research themes (meaning, defining, being; identity, community, welfare and prosperity; religion, violence and conflict resolution; religion, media and the arts; texts, spaces, rituals and objects; education and socialisation; and law, politics and the state),
  • religious traditions (so users could go straight to findings related to particular religions),
  • social factors (so users could access data on factors such as age, ethnicity, or class),
  • policy impact (so users could go to those findings with implications for public policy),
  • methodological concerns (because the Programme aims included not only advancing knowledge about religion and society but also promoting interdisciplinarity, developing productive working relationships between researchers and research subjects, and encouraging reflexivity within the study of religion and society),
  • and individual research projects (so users could go straught to a summary of a particular project - written by the Research Associate).

Under each of these headings I wrote a brief summary to enable users to determinate the value of following the link further into the data. After following a particular link, the user moves through to a new page where the cluster of themes is broken down further into a table of contents that is also hyperlinked.

I drew up some prospective thematic divisions (for this particular brief) using the suggestions made in the descriptions of the Programme's research themes as well as the available titles and proposals of projects commisioned to date. Clicking on, for example, "law, politics and the state" would take the user through to a contents page where the primary heading is split into subheadings (in this case, religion and law; religion and politics; religion and state; and contested concepts) which then divided again into further categories and subcategories.

Each (sub)title in the contents list takes the user to a report (written by the Research Assistant), which synthesises findings from commissioned projects according to subject, under such titles as "Freedom of speech and blasphemy," "Religion and British identity," "Religious visions of society," or "Tolerance."

Each report synthesising findings is structured using

  • the cross-cutting theme heading,
  • a summary statement to enable users to determine page-value
  • a thematic "non-specialist" presentation of findings (with quick links to sections of the report, again to indicate page-value to users)
  • and hyperlinks within the text to more specialist content so users can choose to access more information.

I suggested that these links might enable users to

  • read individual project summaries
  • download project documents (e.g. tables of data, graphs, questionnaires, bibliographies, or the full text research findings provided by principal investigators)
  • visit project / research partner websites
  • buy Programme / individual project publications
  • read journal abstracts and online articles
  • read other online output
  • locate other output and related bodies (including newspaper and magazine articles; policy documents; organisations; communities; similar regional, national and transnational research programmes and projects, e.g. Disasporas, Migration and Identities or NORFACE).

Clearly, both the contents pages and the reports drawn up from Phase 1 research findings would be further refined and augmented as and when findings come in from the other two phases of projects. Also, this is a strategy for dissemination via the Internet, where findings are broken down into accessible and manageable "chunks"; other forms of dissemination would require other (probably much broader) subject headings.

I argued that this strategy simplifies the dissemination of research to different website audiences. While the ESRC website, for example, asks readers what type of user they are (general public, academic, public sector, third sector) and then provides differentiated content for different sets of users, this approach multiplies the work load and ends up repeating information.

The strategy I suggested, however, provides a) user-driven "links in" to the data thereby catering to any and all audiences,and b) "links out" to more specialist content for especially interested users. For example, an academic interested in theories of sacralization can follow links to that thematic report, or, if already aware of and interested in a particular project within the Programme, can go straight to the project summary and download full text documents from the PI. Someone from the public sector who is interested in the research that bears on particular polices can access that information through the "Policy Impact" pathway, and someone from the third sector who wants to know about the interrelations between religion and social deprivation or strategies for successful faith organisations, for example, can like choose their own user-specific path into the data. Finally, a member of the general public interested in Islam can access all the findings whihc relate to that religious tradition.

So, my presentation used insights from research on web usability to reflect on successful online dissemination strategies and to suggest that the Religion and Society Programme website should

  • allow users to navigate through 12 primary headings
  • provide brief summaries of findings clusters to enable users to determine page value
  • display easily scan-able contents pages under each primary heading
  • enable users to choose "links in" to concise, non-specialist, thematic reports (by RA)
  • include links within the reports to allow specialist users to access further content
  • make it easy for users to confirm the value of findings
  • convince users to print off full text documents (from PI) or buy publications.

I made it clear that this was not to preclude other methods of dissemination via the website (e.g. page listing all Programme or project-specific output) but rather to present the strategy I would implement to disseminate findings thematically.

I didn't get the job because I haven't yet finished or submitted my thesis (the other four candidates had) and because the successful candidate already had a wider knowledge of religion and society through working on previous projects, so it wasn't because my strategy for online dissemination sucked - therefore I thought it would be of interest to other researchers who are thinking about setting up websites to disseminate their findings to a broader audience.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Theologically Speaking

Here in Lichfield, I go to a local parish church called St. Michael's. It has a great vicar who takes the piss out of everyone, and a stained glass window that I love which has Mary Magdalene in it and the jewels in her hair make her look like she's got pixie ears. (I'll try to remember to take a picture to put here soon.) St. Michael's runs a monthly theological discussion group that I've been part of since we moved here called "Theologically Speaking." The speed with which the group normally moves to issues of doubt and unknowing is always exhilarating - totally blowing away any preconceptions I had held about what this little group of Anglicans would be like. St. Michael's has a few characters that revel in referring to themselves as faithful heretics and it has been fantastic to chat to these guys.

Anyway, Theologically Speaking asked me to do a session on my research. It was titled "A/theism and the Future of the Church," and you can download a copy of the handout I did here.

I started by framing my project in terms of my research questions: How is truth conceptualized in the emerging church milieu? and What are the philosophical, theological and ethical implications of such notions of truth? I (incredibly briefly and necessarily unsatisfactorily) introduced the emerging church milieu as a global network of individuals and communities, connected by the Internet, concerned to live Christ-like lives today.

I began by showing how philosophy has begun to level the playing field for religious belief in the public sphere and introduced notions like post-foundationalism and post-secularism. Here are some of the quotations from participants that I used to give them a flavour of how these notions are held by those involved in the emerging church milieu:

"Everyone has a faith commitment... I'm not saying [everyone's] got a religious commitment, but [they've] got certain assumptis which are not based on reason."

"We're all fundamentalists of one sense or another."

"[Faith] is a foundation of sorts, but it's a post-foundational foundationalism, it's a foundation in the sky, because as soon as you try to analyse it, it disappears."

Here, I've written up the notes I was talking from:

While exposing the myth of the secular levels the playing field for religion to reassert itself in the public sphere (for example, Radical Orthodoxy's unapologetical declaring of secular models of structuring society to be heretical parodies of Christian models), we can go further than this: towards a/theism.

The limitations of human knowledge lead many participants towards an affinity with Derridean deconstruction and Capution deconstructive theology. For example,

"we don't know the number of hairs on God's head, God knows the number of hairs on our head... [The nature of human knowledge] actually creates doubt not just about who or what God is, it creates doubt about if God is. But in the same way that we can celebrate we're not sure exactly who God is, I think we can actually celebrate going, 'and sometimes I don't know even if God is'."

"God changed me, but I'm not sure he exists."

Because we can't know whether we are theists or atheists (in the final analysis) or whether God exists or not, many participants believe that we have to learn to live on the slash of uncertainty between these states. This uncertainty leads to conceiving God differently, other than a being or entity, and instead as an event:

"God spoke to me, repeating four simple words, 'I do not exist.' 'I do not exist'? What could this possibly mean? One thing for sure was that this was not a simply atheism, for it was God who was claiming God's non-existence. In that wasteland I was confronted with something different, I was confronted with the erasure of God by none other than God. I was confronted with the idea that, while God may not be something, that did not imply that God was nothing... And so I began to wonder if it was possible to think of God otherwise than being and nothing, to think of God as speaking, as happening, as an event, as life but not as an object." ('I do not exist,' The God Delusion, ikon, Belfast)

But this uncertainty about whether or not God exists (as an entity) does not lead to a lack of meaning, a lack of ethical principles and apolitical paralysis (as so many criticisms of postmodern thought have contested). Instead, "God" names something (we don't know what) that calls to us, promises a different reality "to come," transforms us and inspires us to make that reality happen. Therefore, it is closely linked to political and social action, particularly notions of justice, hospitality, forgiveness and love.

To explain a bit further, Derrida distingshes between the "messianic" (the inexplicable hope of something "to come" built into us all) and "messianisms" (the concrete systems built around a particular Messiah, e.g. Christianity). What is "to come" is a future we cannot prepare for, because no horizon of expectation (e.g. "kingdom of God") will dull the shocking impact of its arrival. Its coming might even destablise our notions of "kingdom of God." For Derrida, the "messianic structure" (the hope of something "to come") is more important than the particular "messianisms." In fact, "messianisms" need to be kept open to the in-coming of the event, the call, in order to prevent them from being closed over to the work of responding to that call (this is where deconstruction "comes in"!).

"Tearing apart what I love is evidence that I love it" ("Unravelling," The God Delusion, ikon, Belfast)

Jack Caputo talks of both "historical association" (within particular determinate traditions) and "messianic disassociation" (acts of Christians and of Christianity itself which keep them/it open to the incoming of the other, and able - hopefully, because we can't know! - to responding to the other). The Christian tradition is auto-deconstructive. There are fissures and cracks that keep it open to its true calling, that stop it from closing over and shutting down to its vocation to respond to the call (of God? of justice? of love? of peace? Again, we don't know; but we can believe).

There is an element of uncertainty built into creation such that the call can go unheeded, the promise unfulfilled. But we can also be transformed by the call, turned around (metanoia), reversed, convrted, changed. As Caputo has written, we have to "make good" on God's "good" in the Creation narrative, which means acting to bring about what we believe is "to come," even though our idea of it (e.g. kingdom of God, love, justice, peace) might be radically revised in the event of its coming, which might never be.

So even though we don't know the end of the story (does God exist? will the kingdom come? are theists or atheists ultimately right?) we have to step out in faith and respond to what has called us (even though we don't know what it is, even though we name it differently, and disagree about what it is and even that it is).

To recap, the origin of the call is ultimately unknown and unknowable. We all name it differently (God, love, justice, the good, peace...). But we are called by it to help bring it about, not to squabble over what to call it, whether it exists, or who is/isn't included in its call. Caputo writes, “It is not what we call God that is at issue, but what God calls. Then again, it is not what God calls that is at issue, but the response.” (John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God, p.97).

In my thesis, however, I'm particularly interested in how we get from this a/theology to something with practical viability for communities. More quotations from participants signals how they are trying to create communal spaces in which divisions between types of belief are being resisted and blurred.

"dividing people between sheep and goats, that's not what we're about. We're not trying to divide people, we're trying to bring people together."

"Can we hold both views? Can we create a space where both views can be held?"

I'm using the notion of A/theistic Orthodoxy to look at how such spaces might be created. Important here is a different notion of orthodoxy:

"Instead of following the Greek-influenced idea of orthodoxy as right belief,... the emerging community is helping us to rediscover the more Hebraic and mystical notion of the orthodox Christian as one who believes in the right way - that is, believing in a loving, sacrificial and Christ-like manner... Thus orthodoxy is no longer (mis)understood as the opposite of heresy but rather is understood as a term that signals a way of being in the world rather than a means of believing things about the world" (Pete Rollins, How (Not) To Speak of God, pp.2-3).

Here, "church" or community is a space in which divergent beliefs can be held, e.g. whether or not the virgin birth was a historical event, whether Jesus is the Son of God, whether or not God exists as an entity external to us. Many participants talk about beliefs being held "lightly" so that they remain open to the incoming of an event that may radically revise them. Instead of rigid dogmatism, beliefs are held in a "loving, sacrificial, Christ-like manner."

"I think we need to hold our beliefs lightly."

"I tend to draw the line if somebody wants to hold their religion to the point of brow beating or condemning others because they don't do it their way."

"I don't particularly have a problem with people who sort of feel certain, you know. As long as their certainty doesn't then exclude others."

I ended with some questions for discussion:

  • What do you think the implications of a/theism might be for the future?
  • Do you think that suspending final conclusions about the origin(s) of this call and the name(s) which we give it will facilitate a collaborative response to it?
  • Do you think that the notion of "a/theistic orthodoxy" will enable collaboration between denominations, across religons, and with people of "no religoin" for a better future?

It was a really useful exercise to try and introduce some of these ideas to people unfamiliar with either the emerging church conversation or deconstructive theology, and helped me to solidify my thinking in some of these areas. It was great to see everyone interested and engaging with these ideas, and fantastic to see some people so energized about it. The discussion questions ellicited the view that dogmatism will remain a barrier but that collaboration between "progressive" elements (within denominations, across religions and with "atheists") has been possible and will continue to be. The group found the notion of a/theistic orthodoxy to be an exciting way of articulating these developments towards collaboration regardless of differences.

I was asked to do a follow-up session focusing more on a/theism and Derrida's confession that 'I quite rightly pass for an atheist,' which I'll blog about some time next month.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Exploring New Challenges and Methods in the Study of Religion

Details about the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies' postgraduate workshop, "Exploring New Challenges and Methods in the Study of Religion" are now available here. Hosted by Birkbeck's Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society on May 16th 2009, the day runs from 10.15 to 4.30pm and includes a plenary from Linda Woodhead, workshops and postgraduate papers. Andy Dawson, who is an editor of Fieldwork in Religion, told me to let him know if I thought of anything arising from the event to turn into an article. Here's the preliminary programme:

10.15am Registration

10.30am Welcome and plenary talk:

Prof. Linda Woodhead, "Current and future directions in the study of religion"

Lancaster University and Director of the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme.

11.30am Plenary workshops:

Katharine Moody, Lancaster Universty, "Studying religion and the Internet"

Serena Hussain, University of Oxford, "Accessing and using census data for research on religion"

12.50pm Lunch

1.30pm Panel sessions:

Doctoral student presentations on work in progress and methodological issues.

Papers will include:

Jane Cameron, University of Edinburgh: "Visualising Buddhism in India: contesting categories in the field"

Saleem Khan, London Metropolitan University: "Accommodation, competition, and conflict: sectarian identity in Pakistan, 1977-2002"

Lois Lee, Cambridge University: "How religious is non-religion? Non-believing and belonging in modernity"

Helen Purcell, Open University: "Balancing the narratives – a methodological approach to the emic and etic issues of being a Pagan academic"

Denise Ross, University of Birmingham: "A study of the impact of missionaries among the Chin tribe in Myanmar"

Anna Rose Stewart, University of Sussex: "Fieldwork and the network: Contextualising online religion"

Ingrid Storm, University of Manchester: "Using survey data to identify and construct scalar indices of religiosity"

3.00pm Tea and coffee

3.30pm Final plenary panel discussion

4.30pm End