Digitalization and Religious Contact: Topics, Methods, and Resources

I like organizing workshops and inviting my favorite people as speakers. I have indeed organized already a couple of workshops about religion and media (here and here). In this post, I will talk about a recently organized workshop, summarizing the main topics and discussing methodologies. You’ll also find articles and resources that are hopefully helpful for those who are interested in Digital Religion.

Some background… (plus fellowship opportunities & hashtags)

Last week I organized a workshop titled “Digitalization and Religious Contact”. I was particularly excited because it is the first step of a collaboration between CERES, my institution (or at least one of the two institutions I work for, since I love moving around) and CAIS, the Center of Advanced Internet Studies. It all happened because CAIS is literally next door at I started to sneak in and talk to people and attend presentations until Nina Hahne agreed to organize a workshop together.

–> Side but very important note: CAIS has wonderful fellowships for people at different career levels, check it out here if you are interested in getting $ to live in my beautiful Mordor

The workshop involved senior and established scholars as well as early careers, and included people from various disciplines, such as religious studies, media studies, economics, linguistics, anthropology, psychology. It was based both on invitation and CFP.  It had presentations and responses, which were an added value because the respondents were especially good. I wanted to invite all the people I know in the field and beyond, and accept all the papers we received because they were excellent, but my university meanly put some budget limits. So hopefully some of you can get some of the main ideas of the workshop from this post. It is also possible to follow the conversations we had on Twitter with the hashtag #DigRelCon19

Workshop main topics

Here is the great great program of the workshop:

Digitalization Religious Contact

I would like here to summarize some of the main topics that we discussed in the workshop. This is based on my notes, so you can believe they are 100% accurate if you trust my note-taking skills (and I had  A LOT of caffeine in my body).

  • Hybridity : new media platforms increasingly blur the distinctions between “traditional” or “old” media, as it is explained in Andrew Chadwick’s book “The Hybrid Media System“. They also force us to re-think the notion of location, as what happens in a specific place often has both local and global impacts because of the diffusion of the Internet. In relation to hybridity, Johanna Sumiala talked about the example of the Charlie Hebdo attack, which happened in Paris but was discussed throughout the web and negotiated in different ways by a variety of actors. This work is also published in her book “Hybrid Media Events
  • Filter bubbles: When people discuss their beliefs, they often get caught in the so-called filter bubbles, which are groups determined by algorithms. In this way, Christians tend to talk with other Christians online and so forth. Sometimes, as Stephen Pihlaja explained, users do not only talk with like-minded users, but they also make sense of their conflicting and sometimes-contradictory views. By analyzing discourses it is possible, for example, to see people that justify being a Christian but at the same time voting for Trump. In his book “Religious Talk Online” you can find some further information about Stephen Pihlaja’s work.
  • Social Capital: We did spend some time talking about our friend Bourdieu, which was evoked at 6 pm in the evening on Friday night because everybody was curious to know what he would think of social capital in relation to the Internet. The questions that Bourdieu unfortunately isn’t answering concern how religion can (or cannot) be considered as social capital in the Internet age, as Mehmet Karaçuka explored through an analysis of national data. Also on Bourdieu, Abeer Saady explained that reporters in conflict and war zones employ different types of capital to create resources and strategies to perform their jobs. This can be found in her chapter in the book “Transnational Othering
  • Youth: If digitalization impacts all our lives, this is specifically true for young people. Productions for children shouldn’t be dismissed, as Tim Hutchings reminded discussing Guardians of Ancora, a Bible-themed videogame.  Talking with the creators of the videogame, Tim Hutchings found some pretty interesting things, such as, that Jesus was represented with “middle eastern skin tone” but also buff and with a modern haircut, and that there are pretty stereotypical (and SO problematic) representations of Jews. Some extra information can be found in the article “The light of a thousand stories“. Also concerning young people, Sawsan Kheir explained how she interviewed Druze and Muslim youth in Israel to discover how they use social media. It seems that the Internet has an indirect impact on their religious behavior, as happens when young women follow feminist pages and re-think their way of dressing.
  • Emotions: religious narratives and encounters on the Internet often trigger affects and emotions. Mona Abdel-Fadil presented a study on a Christian Norwegian Facebook page where people became pretty emotional with each other. For instance, they used the cross as a “sticky object” (to use Sara Ahmed’s vocabulary in “The Cultural Politics of Emotions“) to show their belonging to Christianity –to the point of having it tattooed on their arms. Also, Mona Abdel-Fadil talks about some trigger words (such as “Islam”) that would immediately kindle emotional conversations on the page. More information in the article “The politics of affect
  • Authority the Internet gives space for people to challenge traditional religious authorities, but also for existing religious leaders to find new ways to exercise their power. Oren Golan talked about the Instagram account of the Pope as an example of “soft power” exercised through visual representations. Oren Golan compared it with the Jewish responsa genre of online Q&As in websites such as askmoses.com, something that displays knowledge-based charisma. This is also discussed in the article “The making of contemporary papacy” written with Michele Martini.
  • Remediation Digital practices always have roots in pre-existing media practices. This is why Susanne Stadlbauer presented a theory to account for religious conversions of refugees in Germany that also explores materiality. Mentioning the book of Bolter and Grusin “Remediation“, Susanne Stadlbaur talked about, among other things, the example of an Iranian refugee who hand-stitched a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s last supper as a material and tangible example of conversion. More is explained in the article “Between secrecy and transparency
  • Politics besides explicitly religious parties, in contemporary Europe there’s a tendency for parties to use religion as a symbolic resource. For instance, Sakina Loukili explained that there are some Dutch right-wing parties that use Christianity to spread Islamophobia. As a response, liberal parties inspired by Islam, such as NIDA and DENK, appeal to the population with a migration background against Islamophobia.
  • Gender for scholars of religion, it is hard to escape discussions about gender roles. We had two very interesting and opposite examples, which were however both about women’s bodies and clothing: Nadia Zasanska talked about Russian Orthodox women who use blogs and embody a very conservative idea of femininity, also wearing “traditional” Orthodox clothes; Rasool Akbari talked about Iranian hashtags such as #MyStealthyFreedom, that incite Iranian women to take off their veils and were started by Masih Alinejad.

And, of course, we talked a lot about religion. A hybrid kind of religion that is sometimes embedded in politics, sometimes serves the purpose of activism and discussions about gender, sometimes is entangled with entertainment. A type of religion that is highly ideological, and it is named to serve a purpose: suffice it to think of attacks labeled as “terrorist” only when Muslims are involved, and never when perpetrated by Christians. Something I learned in this workshop is that it is important to pay attention to religious manifestations outside of religious institutions, but that are entangled with cultural and social identities at large.

Methods and resources

A big issue when working on digital religion is that of how to collect data. With digitalization, it is increasingly difficult to capture the complexity of certain narratives, as discourses are continuously shifting. Both qualitative and quantitative data collections often need to happen live, when events are happening. This is the case of the attack against Charlie Hebdo, where Twitter discourses were particularly relevant during and immediately after the event.

The presenters suggested some methods that can be used for digital religion:

  • Linguistic analysis: by looking at word structure, segment discourses and narrative levels, it is possible to capture some of the nuances of online religious contact. A resource here can be the article by Cameron et al. “The discourse dynamics approach to metaphor and metaphor-led discourse analysis
  • Online ethnography, based on the observation of a specific internet space (e.g. a Facebook page) for an extended period of time. Some insights on online ethnography, especially from Mona Abdel-Fadil’s work, are in the book “Contesting Religion”
  • Analysis of tweets: it is possible to capture tweets through the Twitter search API and analyze them both qualitatively and quantitatively. Some ways to do it can be:
  1. TCAT, which is explained in the article “Programmed Method” by Borra and Rieder.  This is courtesy of Sakina Loukili and the digital methods initiative at the University of Amsterdam (here the toolkit)
  2. Topic modelling, something I know because of my smart colleagues Frederik Elwert and Anna Neumaier. An article about it is  “Exploring the Space of Topic Coherence Measures.” by Röder,  Both, and Hinneburg.

In this respect, a good resource is also the article by  Tsuria et al. “Approaches to digital methods in studies of digital religion“.

To conclude, a big topic of discussion has been that of affordances, a term that seems to come out a lot, and whose precise meaning I am yet to understand (even if I shamelessly use it in all my articles).

If you would like further information, need the precise bibliography of what I cited (everything shall be available through hyperlinks) or if you have comments, please contact me. I am also sure you can get in contact with the participants if you are interested in knowing more about their work.

My idea is also to organize other workshops in the future and I’d like people to contact me if they are interested in participating. My future workshop planning is however facing the small little detail that CERES is soon dumping me because my contract ends in March, but I am an optimist person and I would love to hear from people interested in presenting or collaborating. Also, if you found this post interesting (and read till here), you might want to attend a couple of conferences:

 

 

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