Research Guidelines

Research Guidelines 

Adapted from the Pluralism Project with permission to be used for information only and not for commercial use.

  • 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. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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 TodayThe Muslim JournalIslamic HorizonsThe MinaretWorld Sikh NewsIndia Abroad, and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

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. 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.

You can also explore the sites of umbrella organizations and websites such as the Federation of Jain Associations in North AmericaFederation of Zoroastrian Communities in North America; the World Sikh Council, America Region and SikhiWiki; the Secular Directory and the United Coalition of ReasonSoka 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. 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 your spiritual organization if applicable. 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 your work, 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,