This presentation explores the approaches towards analysing researching religions in cyberspace, based on two decades of experience in analyzing, researching and writing about Islam and Muslims on the Internet. The field is virtual, but has a real-world impact on many levels, with increasing implications for Muslims in local and global contexts. As such, it has become an important subject for academic study. Specific and innovative methodological approaches are required, and these continue to evolve in response to changing issues and technological shifts. The presentation will reflect on experience to date, and consider ways in which digital content can be integrated into academic discourse, drawing upon approaches which are multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary in nature.
Within the study of religions, there is the need to integrate non-traditional skills with the more conventional academic approaches. The study of religions and the Internet is one that requires considerable adaptation over the years, in order to respond to technological developments and shifting user patterns. The generations of digital natives being brought up using Internet related media may make this easier on one level for new generations of students, with inherent assumptions regarding access and utilisation of digital media.
Given the continually changing landscapes associated with religion and the Internet, it is essential to archive and record activities, which can disappear or have a short shelf life. Censorship and hacking can impact on data collection. The need to respond to specific events and circumstances quickly, and to bring in ideas about storing paid sites and content, maintaining archives, developing galleries of screenshots and site archives, and monitoring and recording social media means that materials can be reflected upon at a later date. There are no specific central archives of religions online, so it is down to specific researcher interests in order that significant dialogues on content are recorded and made accessible in a useful manner for academic discourse. The challenge of recording and interpreting social media in its multiple forms would be one example of how the academic boundaries within the study of religions online are continually shifting.
The security of individual researchers is also important when working in sensitive areas: the issue of ethical frameworks in order to undertake research in areas deemed sensitive by governments, such as radicalisation, can open up different layers of difficulty for individual researchers. Twenty years ago, the concerns were very different in relation to gathering material online, when there was less academic, governmental and institutional awareness of the Internet. The protocols of research and data gathering are more refined on one level within contemporary academia, although there remain many disciplinary ‘gaps’ in terms of the fields and methodological approaches.
This presentation will draw together elements of these experiences in order to facilitate a discussion on appropriate approaches to the study of religions in digital contexts.
www.virtuallyislamic.com (Gary R. Bunt’s research website)