Researching children's religious identity

Uzma Peeran discusses what worked well in researching children's religious identity

boy and girl drawingResearching children's religious identity is complex. The multifaceted nature of religion and identity can make the subject difficult to explore.

Existing research has offered insightful accounts of how religion can be a key feature in promoting and safeguarding children's wellbeing. But there's been little discussion that critically reflects on fieldwork experiences and the process of research with children and religion.

In this post, I wanted to talk about the qualitative child-centred approach I used in my MA thesis to delve into children's religious experiences. 

Adopting a child-centred approach

By adopting a qualitative child-centred approach, my dissertation sought to explore what children say and think and how they experience their religion, offering useful insights for others researching in this area.

The methodology involved conducting focus groups with Muslim children aged 9-10 that lasted around 45 minutes to 1 hour, and involved creative techniques that generated relevant field data. 

Small focus groups were particularly useful in engaging children who took their religious identity for granted, or had never reflected on it before. The peer support encouraged them to give opinions and share personal experiences and prompted debate within the group.

The benefits of focus group sessions

This excerpt follows a group of 6 Muslim children discussing how Islam is represented in the media. A different letter is used to represent each child:

M: Journalists should look through the windows of every Muslim house and make sure they do their research.

A: Yes, they need to do that! You know what we were saying earlier about how praying makes us feel calm? I bet they don't know that.

S: Yeah, and our religion is kind and fun, like Eid! Eid is so cool.

K: Why would we even blow up a mosque when it's so important to us?

Each participant's view differs slightly. In this way the group context provided a much richer account of children's attitudes towards how Islam is represented in the media than potentially would have been possible from a series of interviews.

Using the vignette method with focus groups

The vignette method presents participants with a hypothetical scenario and asks them what they would do. They were used in my project to elicit attitudes and beliefs towards religious practices.

Religion can be a difficult subject for children to talk about, especially if they have experienced racist or religious bullying. The vignettes offered them the opportunity to discuss the topic without revealing any personal experiences. The technique was also valuable in showing gender differences across a range of religious understandings, attitudes, behaviours and experiences.

The first of the vignettes described a Muslim girl who was feeling stressed about her homework and upcoming exams. Her mum suggested she recite a prayer before starting her work. Participants were asked to respond to the suggestion and consider whether this was helpful advice.

This is the range of answers children volunteered in response to this vignette.

A: That's really helpful, Allah will guide your way

Z: Allah will accept her dua (prayer)

C: It's good advice

Researcher: Why is it good advice?

A: Because she can connect with Allah, and it will make it easier for her to do the rest (of her work) without any worries

C: You feel sort of calmer

F: She can close her eyes when she says it (the prayer), that could help

This extract reveals how vignettes can elicit different responses from children and how they can freely communicate their reactions. These children, to varying degrees and for slightly different reasons, believed that saying prayers can help a person feel less stressed.

Using flipcharts with focus groups

Flipchart paper was used to note different religious practices and rituals.

Children were asked to write or draw how they felt when performing each religious activity. A blank sheet was also provided for children to note any other religious practices they enjoyed and felt were important. 

The children enjoyed the process and the opportunity to illustrate their feelings in a visual way. The use of the flipchart also broke up the discussion and provided a visual distraction. 

Most importantly, it provided an insight into the range of emotions children can experience when taking part in religious practice.

Understanding children's religious identity

Research into children’s religious identity continues to grow. It is timely to ask questions about researching such issues.

In my project, qualitative methods were successful in delving deeper into complex meanings – but there is room for further development, particularly ways in which children could play a more significant role in the research process.

Creative methods such as diary writing and making scrap books could provide a valuable perspective on the role of agency in children’s religious lives. Children could even act as co-researchers, interviewing their peers and exploring alternative forums through which their religious voices could be heard.

Although religious identity is complex, I hope my fieldwork experience offers suggestions and contributes to a wider debate in a fast-growing and significant area of research. 

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