These guidelines were originally developed for Harvard University students conducting field research. You may wish to adapt these for your own use, which is permissible for non-commercial purposes.
- Background Reading
- Orientation and Preparation
- General Principles
- Guidelines by Tradition
- The Basics of Field Research
- Research Questions
Please be sure that you have done some background reading before visiting religious centers. To begin with, you should review the Pluralism Project’s On Common Ground: World Religions in America. This online resource provides important background information on each religious tradition and bibliographies that may assist you in fieldwork preparation. You will want also to search the Directory of Religious Centers and the cache of research reports to see if information exists in our files on the center you wish to visit.
Other good sources of information include:
John R. Hinnells, A Handbook of Living Religions (New York: Viking Penguin, 1984). This book provides a good chapter of background on each religious tradition, including helpful things such as time lines, ground plans of mosquesMasjid (plural masajid) in Arabic means “place of prostration,” or the place where Muslims bow in prayer; in English, this word has become “mosque.” A masjid contains a prayer hall in which there is a mihrab or prayer niche, and a minbar or pulpit... and templesA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref..., discussions of major holidays, etc.
Raymond Williams, Religions of Immigrants from India and Pakistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). A study of Asian-Indian and Pakistani immigrant communities and their religious traditions in America, with profiles especially of the Nizari Muslims and the SwaminarayanThe Swaminarayan Hindu movement began in early nineteenth century Gujarat with a religious and social reformer named Sahajanand Swami. It is a devotional bhakti movement, focusing on Vishnu in the form of Krishna and Radha and also on Sahajanand Swami him... Hindus, including city-portraits of these communities in Chicago and Houston.
E. Allen Richardson, Strangers in This Land: Pluralism and the Response to Diversity in the United States (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1988) and East Comes West (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1985). These books provide good general introductions and will give a sense of the “big picture” that will be enhanced and enriched by the city and community portraits you are researching.
Diana L. Eck. A New Religious America: How a “Christian” Country Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002)
Rick Fields, How the Swans Came to the Lake (Boston: ShambhalaFormed in 1973 by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Shambhala Vajradhatu is a worldwide organization with its headquarters in Halifax, Nova Scotia, two other main centers in Boulder, Colorado and Marburg, Germany, and more than 100 meditation centers around the w... Press, 1981). A lively and readable history of BuddhismBuddhism is a multi-hued tradition of life, thought, and practice that has developed from the teaching and practice of Siddhartha Gautama (6th century BCE) who came to be called the Buddha, the awakened one. The three major streams of the tradition—Ther... in America. See also the books by Emma Layton and by Charles Prebish on this topic, both of which contain very useful introductions to the various strands of Asian Buddhist communities in America.
Stuart M. Matlins, How to Be a Perfect Stranger: A Guide to Etiquette in Other People’s Religious Ceremonies (2 vol. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997). These guides provide some basic information on etiquette. While not an ideal resource, as it tends to be repetitive, it can be a helpful starting point.
Helen Tworkov, Zen in America (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989). A study of several Zen lineages in America and the American dharmaDharma means religion, religious duty, religious teaching. The word dharma comes from a Sanskrit root meaning “to uphold, support, bear,” thus dharma is that order of things which informs the whole world, from the laws of nature to the inner workings ... heirs of Japanese Zen mastersBecause the Chan (Zen) tradition eschews traditional Buddhist textual, institutional, and ethical guides for the attainment of Buddhahood, the master has a critically important role in directing his or her students along the right path. The Japanese Zen t....
Don Morreale, The Complete Guide to Buddhist America (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1998). An annotated guide to the many Buddhist centers in the U.S. organized by TheravadaTheravada, literally “the way of the elders,” was one of the eighteen earliest sub-schools of Buddhism. Today, the term designates the various traditions of Buddhism most prominent in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Although these traditions differ in i..., MahayanaMahayana, the “Great Vehicle,” is a form of Buddhism the originated in India and spread to Central and East Asia, encompassing schools in Tibet, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Its primary characteristics include a more supernatural view o..., and VajrayanaVajrayana emerged in the 7th century CE as a subset of Mahayana sometimes seen as the third major stream of Buddhism. This tradition is most prominent in Tibet and its surrounding regions, although forms of it are found in China and Japan. Vajrayana, lite... and listed region by region.
Will Herberg, ProtestantProtestant is a term used for the range of reform movements that broke with the Roman Catholic Church during the period called the Reformation. There are many branches of Protestantism, including the Lutherans, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists..., Catholic, Jew (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989, first published, 1955). A classic of the fifties which discusses the second and third generation phenomena among immigrant groups who distance themselves from and then reclaim the traditions of the first generation immigrants.
Yvonne Haddad, Islamic Values in the US (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). A study of the appropriation of Islamic values among American Muslims. Also The Muslims of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), an edited collection of essays on IslamIslam in Arabic literally means “submitting” or “submission.” One who submits or surrenders his or her will to God is called a Muslim. While the whole of God’s creation is described as being inherently Muslim, human beings must choose whether to... in America today.
E. Waugh, Abu-Laban, and Quereshi, The Muslim Community in North America (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1983). A collection of essays on Islam in the U.S. and Canada, including a directory of mosques and Islamic centersAn Islamic center will typically include a mosque, school, and area for social and cultural activities. When a new Islamic center is being organized in the United States, attention is paid to community needs, including a weekend or full-time school, indic....
Peter W. Williams, America’s Religions: From Their Origins to the Twenty-First Century (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2008).
Issues of periodicals such as Hinduism“Hindu” was originally a word given by the Greeks, then the Persians, to the land and peoples beyond the Indus or “Sindhu” River. The term “Hinduism” came into common use only in the 19th century to describe a complex and dynamic pattern of li... Today, The Muslim Journal, Islamic Horizons, The MinaretThe minaret is a tower often built to adorn a mosque, from which the call to prayer may be sounded., World SikhSikhs call their tradition the “Sikh Panth,” meaning the “community (panth) of the disciples of the Guru.” The tradition reveres a lineage of ten Gurus, beginning with Guru Nanak in the 16th century and coming to a clos. with the death of Guru Gob... News, India Abroad, and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.
The Pluralism Project’s Religious Diversity News resource can assist you identifying news stories by tradition or topic.
Orientation and Preparation
Get oriented in your city. Get a detailed map. Find out who is there: how many temples, mosques, churchesThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ..., meditationMeditation is the disciplined practice of quieting and focusing the mind or cultivating the heart’s attention. Different meditation practices commend focusing attention on a word, a prayer, a form, or the breath as a way of practice. Meditation is commo... centers, synagoguesSynagogue, shul in Yiddish, is the most widely used term for a Jewish house of worship. Meaning a “place of gathering,” it is the central institution of Jewish communal life. The structure and role of synagogues has changed through the centuries, but ..., gurdwarasThe gurdwara, “the gateway of the Guru,” is the place for community gathering and worship in the Sikh tradition. The Guru is the Adi Granth, the sacred scripture of the Sikh tradition. Each center will include a chamber where the Adi Granth is kept, a..., etc. Start with the Pluralism Project’s Directory of Religious Centers and Interfaith Organizations. You may also wish to check the Yellow Pages under “churches,” “religion,” etc. Make a note of how centers are listed, as this differs from city to city. In one city, we might find “Churches-Buddhist” listed just after “Churches-Baptist”; or even “Churches-Muslim Mosques.” The Yellow Pages will not give you a complete listing; Usually, they contain just a small fraction of the communities we are looking for, so you will have to develop a complete list by your own research. Remember: one contact leads to another.
Go to the major newspapers. Meet the religion editor or reporter if there is one. Find out what he or she knows and has written about the various religious communities. Check the library, or on-line, for religion articles in the local papers.
Surf the Internet. Check for information at the Pluralism Project website, including the tradition-specific bibliographies and lists of selected links. You can also explore the sites of umbrella organizations and websites such as the Federation of Jain Associations in North America; Federation of Zoroastrian Communities in North America; the World Sikh Council, America Region and SikhiWiki; the Secular Directory and the United Coalition of Reason; Soka Gakkai International and The Mindfulness Bell (just two examples among many Buddhist sanghaThe Sangha is the community of monks or, more broadly, the community of Buddhists. To formally become a Buddhist, one takes refuge in the Three Treasures: the Buddha, Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings), and Sangha. In its widest sense, “sangha” refers ... directories). You may also find it helpful to consult lists maintained by tradition-specific media outlets such as masjidMasjid (plural masajid) in Arabic means “place of prostration,” or the place where Muslims bow in prayer; in English, this word has become “mosque.” A masjid contains a prayer hall in which there is a mihrab or prayer niche, and a minbar or pulpit... listings in The Muslim Link newspaper. Find additional information on your local area using Google or the search engine of your choice.
Contact religion departments at other local universities. Find out who else may have worked on the religious communities of the area. Have there been research projects? Was anything written by students or faculty?
Call local interfaith organizations and the council of churches. Find out if there is an interfaith organization or if the council of churches has listings of mosques, temples, etc. in the area. Check the “Interfaith” listings on the Pluralism Project Directory of Religious Centers and the resources in our pilot study, America’s Interfaith Infrastructure: An Emerging Landscape.
Do your homework. We do not need to “re-invent the wheel,” so it is important to get a sense of what has already been done before starting off on your work.
Start a small notebook for your research notes. What ideas do you have, what leads do you have? Begin by reviewing interfaith calendars to get listings of the religious holidays that are taking place during your research period. Make a log of your research progress. Most importantly, take detailed notes on the names, affiliations, and contact information of people you speak with in the course of your research. This information may be crucial for referrals to other members in a given community, follow-up, thank you notes, and potentially, for your own future research.
General Principles. Please remember that while conducting research, you are a representative of your college or university, as well as the Pluralism Project. Identify yourself when you call or visit, and briefly explain your role in the research project. If you sit down in a more or less formal situation to interview someone, give a fuller description of the Project, and offer literature.
Before visiting a religious center, contact the religious or lay leader of the community as a courtesy. Inquire about the best time to observe religious services and ask who you might speak with to find out more about the history and current activities of the community. You should plan to visit more than once in order to write a profile of the community.
Please keep in mind that, in addition to being a researcher, you are also a guest. As such, please be respectful of the atmosphere of ritual or worship; always respect and follow the practices of your host community. Be sure to thank your hosts for their time and efforts on your behalf, and send thank you notes when appropriate.
Closely observe the practices of community members, and when appropriate follow their example. If everyone is taking off their shoes at the door, offering a particular greeting, or speaking in hushed tones, follow suit. If unsure, ask a member of the community; inquiries often should be directed to a person of the same sex.
Ask for permission before taking photographs, videotaping, or tape recording in any religious center. Avoid talking or note taking during a worship service. Don’t take out pen and paper, camera, or tape recorder, unless you have made quite certain that it would not be intrusive or rude. Use this as an occasion to sharpen your powers of sheer observation. If the atmosphere permits, making a few notes as you visit a place will permit you to recall more accurately when you sit down later to write field notes.
Both men and women should dress modestly and neatly; loose clothing is recommended as, in many centers, you may sit on the floor.
Guests at religious centers are discouraged from openly displaying jewelry with other religious symbols or images, including the crossThe cross is the central symbol of the Christian faith, pointing to the significance for the church of the whole Christ event: the life and teachings, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ., the Star of DavidDavid was the King of Israel (c. 1000 BCE) credited with uniting the many tribes of Israel into a centralized kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital. David is said to have planned for the Temple in Jerusalem, which was subsequently built by his son Solomon..., zodiac signs, pentacles, or images of people or animals.
Wear shoes that are easily removed, as it is the practice to take off one’s shoes before entering the prayerPrayer is the vocal or silent address to the Divine. It may consist of fixed words, spontaneous words, or rest in silence with no words at all. Some forms of prayer are accompanied with specific postures or gestures, while others are not. halls of gurdwaras, masajid or Islamic centers, Hindu, Jain, and ZoroastrianOriginating with the teachings of the Prophet Zarathushtra in the second millennium BCE, the ancient faith of Zoroastrianism is referred to as “the Good Religion” in the sacred texts. Zoroastrians are encouraged to live out their faith through the pra... temples, as well as most Buddhist templesBuddhist temples differ considerably from one another depending upon culture and particular school, but most are associated with the residence of the sangha of monks. Theravada temples focus on one or more images of Sakyamuni Buddha. In Mahayana and Vajra....
In many of the aforementioned communities, feet should not be touched, should not touch another person, should not be stretched out in front, and should not point directly towards the altarAn altar is a raised platform or stand which bears the central symbols of a religious tradition—whether in a temple, church, shrine, or home—and at which offerings are made, worship is offered, or prayers are said., holy book, or religious leader.
In many situations, it is appropriate to avoid physical contact, particularly with people of the opposite sex. Many religious communities discourage shaking hands with someone of the opposite sex; others, such as some Muslim communities, discourage a private meeting between a man and a woman. (This can be circumvented by working in teams, or arranging to meet with two community members at the same time.) Other communities, such as some Buddhists, might discourage touching the head of another person, even that of a child.
Guidelines by Tradition. These are not intended to be comprehensive, but are intended to provide some basic information for first-time visitors.
- Bahá’í – There are few Bahá’í centers in the U.S. Most Bahá’ís gather in private homes, or, on occasion, in rented facilities. There is no ordainedOrdination means consecration to a priestly or monastic life. The term is used in the Buddhist tradition for the rites of becoming a monk (bhikkhu) or nun (bhikkhuni); in the Jewish tradition for the rites of becoming a rabbi; and in the Christian traditi... ministryMinister is a general term for a member of the clergy in the Christian church. The term has also come to use in other religious traditions to designate a member of the clergy (as in the Jodo Shinshu tradition and the Nation of Islam). in the Baha’i faith; every local community is organized by a Spiritual AssemblyThe spiritual assembly is the basic organizational structure of the Bahá’í Faith. Local spiritual assemblies may be formed anywhere that nine or more Bahá’ís live, and national spiritual assemblies are created at the national or regions level when....
Visitors are eagerly encouraged to attend “firesidesA fireside is a common type of Bahá’í meeting, a gathering in a Bahá’í home to discuss the faith. Bahá’ís are encouraged to host such gatherings regularly. Bahá’í communities also sponsor large public firesides in a home or a Bahá’í Ce...,” regular meetings which are geared for people outside of the faith; however, visitors may not be welcome at religious ceremonies.
- Buddhist – In most cases, it is appropriate to remove your shoes before entering the prayer hall, meditation room, or main templeA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref.... One should not enter or leave a temple during meditation. Participation in worship is optional. In some instances, it is appropriate to make a small donation to the temple ($1-$5, generally in a small box marked accordingly).
Religious leaders have various titles, including “MonkA monk is a man who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully ord...,” “Reverend,” “Venerable,” “MinisterMinister is a general term for a member of the clergy in the Christian church. The term has also come to use in other religious traditions to designate a member of the clergy (as in the Jodo Shinshu tradition and the Nation of Islam).,” “PriestA priest is the leader of a religious community or congregation, specially trained and often ordained to service, who leads members of the community in the rituals and practice of shared and individual life. Many traditions have forms of priesthood.In the...,” “LamaLama, the Tibetan term meaning “superior” refers especially to those of superior spiritual attainment. It is a translation of the Sanskrit word “guru” and is used for any venerable monk or qualified spiritual teacher.,” or “Roshi,” depending on the denomination. In some communities, the religious leadership may not speak English; you may ask to speak with the temple president.
- Christian – Participation in worship is optional. Visitors are always welcome.
On the whole, participation in communionCommunion or holy communion—also called the Eucharist, or the Lord’s supper—is the central rite of the Christian community in which the faithful partake as a community of the sanctified bread and wine. By extension, communion is often used to refer ... is limited to baptized Christians; in some cases, it is limited to members of that denomination. There are usually words of invitation at the beginning of the communion service (or EucharistEucharist, meaning “thanksgiving,” names the central rite of the Christian tradition in which Christians share the sanctified bread and wine, giving thanks to God, as Jesus did in sharing such a meal with his disciples. This rite is also called holy c...) that make clear who is invited to participate.
- Hindu – Remove your shoes before entering the temple, as well as most private homes of Hindus. It is appropriate to offer the greeting of “Namaste” (with the palms of the hands pressed together in front of your chest, bowing slightly).
Participation in worship is optional.
During the service, food and water that has been blessed, prasadFor the religious traditions of India, prashad or prasadam refers to God’s “grace,” especially as received in return for the gifts that have been offered in puja. In the Hindu tradition, after the offerings of water, fruit, flowers, and the oil lamp..., may be offered to participants. One should accept the prasad with the right hand. Non-Hindus are welcome and encouraged to accept prasad. During the service, an oil lamp of aratiIn the Hindu tradition, arati is the circling of oil lamp-lights before the murti (image) of the deity so as to illumine each part of its face and body. This is often the final act of puja (worship). So important is this lamp offering that the term arati ... may also be passed. It is customary to pass fingers through the flame and then touch the fingers to the forehead.
Religious leaders may be called a “PanditA pandit is a teacher, a scholar, a learned person.,” “Priest,” or a “PujariA pujari is a brahmin Hindu priest responsible for the daily worship (puja) and care of the deities in the temple.”
In some communities, the religious leadership may not speak English fluently; you may ask to speak with the temple president.
In some instances, it is appropriate to make a small donation to the temple ($1-$5, generally in a small box marked accordingly). In some temples, a box called a “Hundi” is provided for this purpose.
- Muslim – Remove your shoes before entering the prayer hall of a masjid or Islamic CenterAn Islamic center will typically include a mosque, school, and area for social and cultural activities. When a new Islamic center is being organized in the United States, attention is paid to community needs, including a weekend or full-time school, indic...; in some cases, the shoes are removed at the front door.
Women should cover their heads and wear loose-fitting clothing that covers their legs and arms. A large scarf, draped over the head, neck, and shoulders, is ideal. Men should also dress modestly; wearing a kufi (skullcap) is optional for men.
Some masajid or Islamic Centers have separate entrances for women and men. All prayer areas have separate sections for men and women. The women’s area is often in the back of the room, sometimes separated with a divider; in other cases it is in a separate room.
The Muslim greeting is “Salaam Alaykum” (Peace be upon you); the response is “Wa Alaykum Salaam” (And upon you Peace). Non-Muslims are welcome to exchange this greeting with their hosts.
The religious leader is called an “imam”; he leads prayersPrayer is the vocal or silent address to the Divine. It may consist of fixed words, spontaneous words, or rest in silence with no words at all. Some forms of prayer are accompanied with specific postures or gestures, while others are not. and delivers the khutbah (sermon) during Jum’ah prayers (weekly communal prayers held mid-day on Friday). In some cases, he will serve as a spokesperson for the community; in other cases, the center may have a President or community member designated for this role.
Non-Muslims should not participate in worship, although visitors are welcome in the prayer hall. N.B. Visitors do not enter prayer rooms in Nizari IsmailiIsmaili Shi’ah refers to the group of Shi’i Muslims who, upon the death of the sixth Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq in 765, affirmed his son Isma’il to be the next Imam. The Ismailis further split in 1094 into Mustali and Nizari branches. Emphasizing the ne... jamaatkhanas.
One should never walk in front of a person who is performing their prayers. Please keep this in mind if you have been given permission to take photographs during worship.
- Jain – Remove your shoes before entering a Jain templeEach Jain temple is regarded as a replica of the assembly hall miraculously created by the gods for Mahavira upon his enlightenment. Hence, in entering a temple, a Jain has the sense of approaching the spot where a living Tirthankara sits in omniscient co..., as well as most private homes of Jains. Participation in worship is optional. At some Jain events, men and women sit separately.
Few U.S. Jain communities have resident religious leaders; many do not have temples or may share space at a local Hindu temple. Visiting monksA monk is a man who renounces worldly life and is ordinarily a member of a monastic order or community, thereby undertaking a special commitment to study, service, asceticism, prayer, or disciplined spiritual practice. In the Buddhist tradition, fully ord... from India give lectures and perform ceremonies at many Jain communities.
Most communities have a local lay person, often a “President” or other member of a community association, who will be able to provide information about community activities.
- Jewish – The religious leader, or “Rabbi” may be the best contact person; in some cases, the temple president is designated for outreach.
In OrthodoxIn general, orthodox means having a “correct opinion or outlook” and is a term used by people in many religions who claim authority for traditional views and forms of their religion. synagogues, women and men worship in separate sections. Women should cover their head and wear clothing that covers the arms and legs in Orthodox synagogues; head coverings are required in some Conservative synagogues as well. Men are required to wear a small head covering, known as a yarmulkeA kippah is a headcovering, a skull cap, worn by Jewish men for worship, religious study, meals, or at all times., or kippahA kippah is a headcovering, a skull cap, worn by Jewish men for worship, religious study, meals, or at all times., in Conservative, Orthodox, and ReconstructionistThe Reconstructionist movement is a recent development in American Judaism, beginning with Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881 - 1982) who understood Judaism to be a civilization and culture, kept vibrant by constantly changing and adapting to new situations. The ce... synagogues, as well as some Reform synagogues. They are available at the entrance to the main sanctuary.
- Native Peoples – Follow the terminology used by the community: some prefer to be called “Native AmericansEach of the many Native American nations has its own distinctive life-ways, although there are some widely-shared characteristics. most Native life-ways are primarily transmitted through oral traditions; they are oriented toward living in relation to a sp...,” others may prefer “American Indians.”
Many Native AmericanEach of the many Native American nations has its own distinctive life-ways, although there are some widely-shared characteristics. most Native life-ways are primarily transmitted through oral traditions; they are oriented toward living in relation to a sp... religious ceremonies are not open to the general public. Ask before joining in any worship activity, including drumming or dancing.
It is rarely appropriate to take photographs of Native American religious practices, places, or people.
- Pagan – Participation in worship is optional. You may be invited to place personal items on an altar during PaganThe term “pagan” (from the Latin paganus) originally meant “peasant” or “country dweller.” For many Pagans, the term suggests a life lived close to the land. Today, nature spirituality is an important thread in contemporary Paganism. Some Paga... ritual; however, never touch anything else on the altar. If you have joined a circleIn some Pagan traditions, a “circle” refers to the people who gather for a ritual. When standing in a circle, all the participants are able to see each other, with no one member elevated over any other. This practice is often felt to encourage egalita... and wish to leave, you must acknowledge and honor the circle before doing so. (Visualize an opening, step through, and visualize the space closing as you leave.)
While the event may be celebratory, with dancing, singing, and feasting, remember that it is a religious ritual. It is rarely appropriate to take photographs of Pagan religious practices.
- Sikh – Both men and women are required to cover their heads before entering the prayer hall of a gurdwaraThe gurdwara, “the gateway of the Guru,” is the place for community gathering and worship in the Sikh tradition. The Guru is the Adi Granth, the sacred scripture of the Sikh tradition. Each center will include a chamber where the Adi Granth is kept, a..., or during a religious ceremony in a private home. At some gurdwaras, head coverings are available at the door for men; most women drape a large scarf over their head. Shoes should be removed before entering the gurdwara.
It is appropriate to bow before the Guru Granth SahibAdi Granth means literally the “First Book.” For Sikhs, the three thousand hymns (shabads) contained within its pages are the Word of God. Before the death of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708, he invested the Guruship not in a human successor, but in the scr... (the holy book) on entering the prayer area, and, often, to make a small donation ($1-$5). Participation in worship is optional.
During the service, food that has been blessed, prasad may be offered. One should accept (and eat) the prasad with the right hand. After services, a communal meal called langarLangar is the communal meal shared by Sikhs and all visitors to the gurdwara. For Sikhs, eating together in this way is expressive of the rejection of the Hindu caste system to reaffirm the equality and oneness of all humankind. is served. Hospitality is extremely important; guests are strongly encouraged to join in the langar meal.
Religious leaders, called “GranthiThe granthi is the custodian of the book (granth). In the Sikh tradition, the granthi cares for the Adi Granth by maintaining the gurdwara and seeing to the daily observances in the special room where the sacred book is housed. He may also lead the chanti...,” lead the community in the reading of the Guru Granth Sahib. In some communities, the religious leadership may not speak English fluently; you may ask to speak with the president.
- Zoroastrian – As a non-Zoroastrian, ask permission before entering a temple. In India, only ZoroastriansOriginating with the teachings of the Prophet Zarathushtra in the second millennium BCE, the ancient faith of Zoroastrianism is referred to as “the Good Religion” in the sacred texts. Zoroastrians are encouraged to live out their faith through the pra... are permitted in fire templesA Zoroastrian house of worship is often known as a “fire temple” because Zoroastrians pray in the presence of fire. Fire temples in India and Iran are named according to the grade of fire; the highest grade temple is known as an Atash Bahram. In the U....
Both men and women are required to cover their heads before entering a Zoroastrian temple, or during a Zoroastrian ceremony. Shoes should be removed before entering the temple. Participation in worship is optional.
Religious leaders, called “MobedsA mobed is a man with knowledge; in common usage, this term refers to a Zoroastrian priest of any category or rank. Zoroastrians recognize an hereditary priesthood; one must be born into a mobed family in order to become a priest.,” serve U.S. Zoroastrian communities. Most Mobeds work full-time jobs in addition to taking care of the ritual needs of their communities. Often, the local association president, or other member, may be a more appropriate contact person.
The Basics of Field Research
A few basic guidelines on how to conduct Pluralism Project field research include:
Look at bulletin boards for notices of activities. Collect pamphlets, schedules, and publications. The humble pamphlet or flyer is an extremely important document for a researcher in popular, and as yet largely undocumented, religious life. Collect duplicate copies if you intend to maintain files at your home university.
Talk to as wide a range of people as possible. Do not get all your information from leaders or priestsA priest is the leader of a religious community or congregation, specially trained and often ordained to service, who leads members of the community in the rituals and practice of shared and individual life. Many traditions have forms of priesthood.In the..., but meet participants, lay people, young and old, women and men.
You will find your own style and way of questioning by trial and error. There is no one correct method, but you should make sure that your questions don’t imply or include a particular answer. Open-ended questions that follow the interest of the person being interviewed, are generally best. For example, ask: “Why did you have trouble getting a zoning variance?” rather than, “Did you have trouble getting a zoning variance because the neighbors were concerned about traffic?”
Take careful notes. Set aside some time as soon as you leave the temple, gurdwara or masjid to write as full and extensive an account as you can of your visit. Be as descriptive as your boldest prose will stretch. The more extensive your daily digest of field notes, the easier it will be to write up a final report.
Take along a camera on every visit. Please photograph each center from the outside, and don’t be deterred by the fact that some of the buildings may appear plain or uninteresting. A masjid in a former one-story office building, or a storefront temple are also important to document. As for interior photographs, or photographs of religious practices, be certain to ask first if taking photographs is acceptable.
Take along a tape recorder, but be prepared to take notes. Getting people to talk about their own experience requires a certain amount of trust and confidence. Be yourself. Introduce yourself. Talk about the Pluralism Project, and the institution with which you are affiliated. Be simple and straightforward about who you are and why you are there. You will learn a great deal informally over coffee or tea in the social hall of the temple or masjid. You will also want to fix times for conversations that might more properly be called interviews. You are the best judge of how much you will be able to ask. Take notes, at least recording key phrases and words that will allow you to reconstruct the conversation when you leave. Depending on the occasion, you might well ask to use a tape recorder, which frees you for a more spontaneous encounter. For many people taping is not intrusive and both of you will forget about the tape recorder after the first minute; however, others may be apprehensive about taping.
Fieldwork is challenging. This work builds upon your/our academic work, and yet we are challenged to learn more by engaging in fieldwork. For most everyone, this can be difficult at times. It means putting oneself in new situations, introducing oneself to strangers, and being in the role of stranger or guest in a community that is not one’s own. It is immensely rewarding, but it also presents unique challenges.
Safety first. If there are situations in which you feel unsafe or unsure, take a friend along or don’t go.
Gather basic information on each religious center. You may use the Pluralism Project Research Template as a guide. Some of the questions you might ask include:
- What is the history of the temple, masjid, etc? When was it built or acquired? If the community purchased an existing building, what sort of building was it? Who was involved in establishing the center? Was there a previous place of worship? When was the first center established in the area?
- What were the considerations in choosing this building or in deciding on this property on which to build? Did the community encounter any difficulties in acquiring or building this place for use as a religious center?
- Who worships here now? Is it a particular ethnic group, or is it ecumenical? Has the composition of the group changed significantly in recent years? What is the community’s self-understanding? To bring people of a particular sectarian group together? To bring Hindus together, or Muslims together, whatever their background? To bring people of a particular ethnic group together?
- What is the size of the community that gathers here? Has it changed in recent years? How many of the community members are children?
- Who is in charge of the center? What kind of leadership? Are there lay leaders? Religious leaders? Teachers?
- How are decisions made? Is there a governing board?
- What happens here every day? Every week? Every month? What are the major festivals and events celebrated or observed? What family rites and rituals take place here?
- What language is used most commonly here in prayer, worship, and conversation?
- Is there a newsletter or other publications? Can the Pluralism Project, and the affiliate, if desired, get on the mailing list? Ask for a current issue and inquire about back copies.
- Does the community have a website or email address? (Please note: If the researcher has already seen the organization’s website, they might inquire about something on the site that they found interesting.)
- Are there particular programs for young people? Educational programs? Summer Camps? Language programs? Programs for women? For students? For men? Community service? Describe.
Find out about wider community contacts and networks.
- What is the relation of this temple to the wider Hindu community in this city, in this state, nationally?Is there a network or organization of gurdwaras? A council of masajid or a regional Islamic society? What activities or events are shared? Does the temple belong to any national organizations or associations?
- What is the relation of this center to the other faith communities in this city or area? Is there an interfaith council? Are there dialogue meetings? Are there other organizations in which SikhsSikhs call their tradition the “Sikh Panth,” meaning the “community (panth) of the disciples of the Guru.” The tradition reveres a lineage of ten Gurus, beginning with Guru Nanak in the 16th century and coming to a clos. with the death of Guru Gob... or Buddhists meet Jews, Christians, etc.? Have there been particular joint projects?
Get the stories. Once you get to know people, ask about some of their own stories in relation to this community. A portrait needs more than facts; it requires people and the story as told from their perspective. One might ask:
- This temple must have been a big project. How were you involved? What made you decide to become involved? What was it like the day the temple was dedicated? What kind of ceremony was it? How did you feel that day? What was it like when you first moved to Denver? Was finding a masjid a top priority? What were the problems for you and your family in settling down here? Are there particular times you felt misunderstood by people unfamiliar with Hinduism here? Do you feel accepted by your neighbors here in Phoenix? What are the major difficulties you experience here?
- Are there particular stories of connections made and bridges built between people of different religions here? What do you like most about the religious environment of the U.S.?
- What are the special concerns your children have? What concerns do you have about your children? What do you suppose this community will be like by the time your children are grown?
- How different is this temple or masjid from the ones you knew in India or Pakistan? In what ways is it different? Are there some religious practices that are just impossible here in the U.S.?
- What adjustments or adaptations has the religious community had to make here in America? What are the biggest adjustments you yourself have had to make?
- What do you think is the role of the gurdwara, temple, or masjid in the life of the community? At what times in daily life is it most important?
- What life cycle rites or observances are most important to you, and how are they done? What role does the temple or masjid have during these times?
Get the big picture, the community picture.
- Hospitals: Visit a hospital and speak an administrator to find out about chaplaincy. Are there chaplainsA chaplain is a member of the clergy who serves in a prison, a hospital, a college, or some other institution outside the context of the normal congregational life of a religious community. of many faiths affiliated with the hospital? How does the hospital deal with special religious needs of people of various faith communities in times of crisis? How do they address special food needs, for instance, for Hindus or Muslims.
- Schools: Visit a school principal or the school superintendent, even a school teacher. How is the religious diversity of the student body approached in the school system? Are various holidays discussed, with this being the opportunity for education? Do teachers have some training in the religious traditions of the students they teach? Is religion excluded completely, or included? Has there been discussion of teaching about various religious traditions in the school system?
- Government: Visit city hall and speak with the mayor or someone in the mayor’s office about the way in which the city has dealt with the new religious diversity of the population. Are there particular issues that have come up? Are there substantial changes in the city’s population make-up as reflected by the most recent census? Are there multi-cultural projects or programs sponsored by the city?
- Religious Community: Visit with the leaders of several churches and synagogues. In what ways do relations with people of other faiths come up in the churchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... context, either in terms of outreach or education? Visit the council of churches and the local synagogueSynagogue, shul in Yiddish, is the most widely used term for a Jewish house of worship. Meaning a “place of gathering,” it is the central institution of Jewish communal life. The structure and role of synagogues has changed through the centuries, but ... association. Is there a local chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice? the Interfaith Alliance? Is there a local interfaith association? Who belongs and how often do they convene? What issues are on the agendas of these interfaith organizations?
As your field research period reaches its conclusion, be sure to: Send materials for review. Send center profiles to each community for their review, and integrate any corrections.
Send thank you notes. Send thank you letters to any individuals or communities who have been particularly helpful.
Thanks for reading! Do not hesitate to be in touch with the Pluralism Project staff with any questions you may have at any point during the research process.
Now go, and learn something!