Research Guidelines

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
  • Etiquette
  • General Principles
  • Guidelines by Tradition
  • The Basics of Field Research
  • Research Questions
  • Conclusion

Background Reading

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 mosques and temples, 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 Swaminarayan 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: Shambhala Press, 1981). A lively and readable history of Buddhism 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 dharma heirs of Japanese Zen masters.
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 Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana and listed region by region.

Will Herberg, Protestant, 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 Islam 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 centers.

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 Today, The Muslim Journal, Islamic Horizons, The Minaret, World Sikh 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, churches, meditation centers, synagogues, gurdwaras, 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 sangha directories). You may also find it helpful to consult lists maintained by tradition-specific media outlets such as masjid 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 cross, the Star of David, 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 prayer halls of gurdwaras, masajid or Islamic centers, Hindu, Jain, and Zoroastrian temples, as well as most Buddhist temples.

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 altar, 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 ordained ministry in the Baha’i faith; every local community is organized by a Spiritual Assembly.

Visitors are eagerly encouraged to attend “firesides,” 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 temple. 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 “Monk,” “Reverend,” “Venerable,” “Minister,” “Priest,” “Lama,” 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 communion 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 Eucharist) 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, prasad, 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 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 “Pandit,” “Priest,” or a “Pujari.”
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 Center; 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 prayers 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 Ismaili 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 temple, 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 monks 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 Orthodox 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 yarmulke, or kippah, in Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist 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 Americans,” others may prefer “American Indians.”
    Many Native American 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 Pagan ritual; however, never touch anything else on the altar. If you have joined a circle 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 gurdwara, 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 Sahib (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 langar is served. Hospitality is extremely important; guests are strongly encouraged to join in the langar meal.

Religious leaders, called “Granthi,” 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 Zoroastrians are permitted in fire temples.
    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 “Mobeds,” 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 priests, 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.

Research Questions

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 Sikhs 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 chaplains 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 church context, either in terms of outreach or education? Visit the council of churches and the local synagogue 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?

In Conclusion

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!

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