7 Ethnography in RE

Julian Stern

What connects a great deal of research in RE is how embedded research is in the everyday work of schools, and how sensitive research is – or should be – to the relationships and the ways of life that make up the whole school community. It is useful, therefore, to consider ethnographic research in RE, as ethnography has at its heart the need to understand not only the people being studied on their own terms, but also the researchers completing the study, and the relationships between researchers and researched.

The ethnographic researcher is not, and should not attempt to be, a separate, impersonal, and neutral observer of life, looking at ‘interesting objects of study’. As a word, ‘ethnography’ is derived from ‘people-writing’ or ‘people-drawing’, with ‘people’ perhaps meaning race or nation. ‘Ethnography’ refers to immersive fieldwork in a real or a virtual community, and to the report of the fieldwork, which may be in print or a documentary or a film. It is an empirical study consisting largely of more-or-less participant observation, and semi-structured or unstructured interviewing allowing the interviewee some ‘agency’.

a_Pencils-21.jpg One of the leading ethnographic researchers working in RE is Eleanor Nesbitt (with Nesbitt based at the University of Warwick), who describes researching young Hindu homes (reported in Jackson and Nesbitt 1993), and the potential problems of power, of having the power to interpret and use material gained from people. Increasingly, therefore, the subjects of research are being treated as active participants, with some editorial input.

Such ‘deep listening’, and empowering people, can be an attitude to life as well as to research. We can have an ‘ethnographic’ approach to life, although we can also choose to reject that, as people and as researchers. The aims of ethnography are to understand human behaviour at ever-increasing depth, from the point of view of those studied, and to communicate this deepening understanding sensitively to others. When ethnographic research is completed for RE, as it is by Nesbitt and others at the Warwick Religions & Education Research Unit, there are therefore many benefits to RE teaching and learning, and to research in RE.

a_Pencils-21.jpg Smalley (2005, with Smalley based in Cambridgeshire local authority) and Stern (2006, chapter 7, with Stern based at York St John University) give examples of research that can be completed in classrooms, developed from techniques used by ethnographers. Some of the more systematic advantages and challenges of the ethnographic study of religion are analysed and exemplified in the work of various writers, including Nesbitt (especially Nesbitt 2004, and other related work in Jackson and Nesbitt 1993, Nesbitt 2001, 2003, 2005 and Nesbitt and Kaur 1998), Ballard (1994), Baumann (1996, 1999), and Geaves (Geaves 1998, and see Geaves et al. 2004, with Geaves based at Liverpool Hope University).



  • Ballard, R (ed) (1994) Desh Pradesh: South Asian Experience in Britain; London: C Hurst & Co.
  • Baumann, G (1996) Contesting Culture: Discourses of Identity in Multi-Ethnic London; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Baumann, G (1999) The Multicultural Riddle: Rethinking National, Ethnic and Religious Identities; London: Routledge.
  • Geaves, R (1998) ‘The Borders between Religions: A Challenge to the World Religions Approach to Religious Education’, British Journal of Religious Education 21(1), pp 20–31.
  • Geaves, R, Gabriel, T, Haddad, Y and Idleman Smith, J (2004) Islam and the West Post September 11th; Aldershot: Ashgate.
  • Jackson, R and Nesbitt, E (1993) Hindu Children in Britain; Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham.
  • Nesbitt, E. (2001) Interfaith Pilgrims, London: Quaker Books.
  • Nesbitt, E (2003) Interfaith Pilgrims: Living Truths and Truthful Living; London: Quaker Home Service.
  • Nesbitt, E (2004) Intercultural Education: Ethnographic and Religious Approaches; Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.
  • Nesbitt, E (2005) Sikhism: A Very Short Introduction; Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Nesbitt, E and Kaur, G (1998) Guru Nanak; Calgary, Alberta: Bayeux Arts.
  • Smalley, S (2005) ‘Teaching about Islam and Learning about Muslims: Islamophobia in the Classroom’, REsource 27:2, pp 4–7.
  • Stern, L J (2006) Teaching Religious Education: Researchers in the Classroom; London: Continuum.