Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Becoming Data: Star Trek Wisdom and the Unforeseen Effects of Fieldwork on the Fieldworker

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Becoming Data: Star Trek Wisdom and the Unforeseen Effects of Fieldwork on the Fieldworker

Article excerpt


Problems Researching Religion

[1] Researching people in religious groups comes with issues that set them apart from many other subjects of research. First, researchers have to understand the implications of their participants believing in an abstract entity (a god or similar figure) whom everyone may describe somewhat differently, but who people believe gives them direct orders (field notes, 5:11-20). (1) In all likelihood, many secular researchers feel incredible frustration with having to analyze something that they themselves cannot understand. Research from this secular perspective can overlook the interactional aspects of religious activity (Ayella 1993, 109). The positivist and scientific meta-narratives that often come with this perspective can cloud researchers' abilities to observe religious phenomena because it can prevent them from viewing some of the more subjective aspects of religious belief (Barker 1995).

[2] I have come to navigate these problems through one of the first things I learned as a sociologist: the Thomas theorem. In this theorem, W.I. Thomas--who was one of the founding members of the Chicago school of sociology--stated, "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences" (Thomas and Thomas 1928, 572). Therefore, it does not matter if religion is real; the social effects of religious belief are real for the believers and have real social consequences. Researchers then need to avoid questioning the validity of religious belief and instead focus on its deep social ramifications.

[3] The second and most important issue around researching religious groups is that members whom researchers are investigating often have a greater interest in them as people than as social scientists. Whether they view researchers as people whom they wish to convert, souls who could be of use to "God," or individuals who just could use some "spiritual help," for the most part these groups put forth an honest and sincere interest in researchers' personhood (Palmer 2001, 106; Richardson, Stewart, and Simmonds 1979, 304). Researchers, therefore, must risk feeling genuine affections from their participants.

[4] For example, in her study of Pentecostal Catholics, sociologist Meredith McGuire explained that good participant observation "requires encountering the group on its own terms and (in anthropological terms) [taking] the risk of 'going native.'" She added, "In the sociology of religion this means deliberately exposing oneself to the ideas and experiences which lead many other participants to be converted" (McGuire 1982, 21). In this way, fieldwork often necessitates researchers putting themselves in situations that may threaten their identities (Ewing, 1994).

[5] Furthermore, researchers, particularly junior/student researchers, often underestimate this interest in their personhood on the part of group members. Often, researchers are underprepared for encountering charismatic and influential people who have this personal interest in them (Lalich 2001, 134-35). The boundaries we set up as researchers are far more porous than we originally imagine and we must be conscious of this susceptibility. Recently I experienced this susceptibility in my own research and, not having read the literature on research pitfalls beforehand, I had little prior knowledge to help me understand the situation of subjects who wanted to "save" me as much (or maybe more than) I wanted to study them. Thus, as I struggled to comprehend my reactions to research subjects who genuinely wanted me to join them, a piece of popular culture--a scene from Star Trek: First Contact--helped me understand what I was going through as a researcher.

Star Trek and Academia

[6] The first Star Trek series debuted on television in 1966. This original series, created by Gene Roddenberry, spawned four more television series, ten theatrical movies, a multitude of books and magazines, and a massive number of internet fan sites (Startrek. …

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