Two students in the Duke Divinity School Th.D. program, Dustin Benac and Sarah Jobe, joined with three Ph.D. students in Duke’s Graduate Program in Religion to implement a project funded by the Duke Support for Interdisciplinary Graduate Networks (D-SIGN).
D-SIGN enables graduate students at Duke to build or extend their networks and to integrate collaborative, cross-school experiences into their programs, part of Duke’s commitment to interdisciplinarity and knowledge in the service of society. Such experiences deepen students’ exposure to interdisciplinary collaboration, key preparation for both academic positions and nonacademic career trajectories. In January 2018, a request for proposals invited all current Duke graduate students to propose an interdisciplinary project, training, or experience lasting up to a year. Proposals were reviewed by a committee convened by the vice provost for interdisciplinary studies with representation from faculty, institute directors, and graduate students.
The cohort including Benac and Jobe received an award for their proposal of a Theology, Religion, and Qualitative Methods Network, which would employ methodological tools from the social sciences to better understand how cultural groups talk about holy figures and navigate ritual engagement with the sacred. The faculty advisor is Luke Bretherton, professor of theological ethics and Duke Divinity School and senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics.
"I decided to pursue my doctoral training through the Doctoral of Theology program precisely in order to undertake this kind of interdisciplinary work," said Benac, who earned an M.Div. degree from Duke in 2015 and is currently in the Th.D. program in practical theology. "Support from Duke Interdisciplinary Studies has enabled me to receive the kind of methodological training and interdisciplinary conversation partners that are required to work to synthetically across fields. At critical stages in my intellectual and professional development, they have supported my work: a Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grant (GSTEG) enabled me to receive the requisite qualitative methods training and the D-SIGN award provided an avenue to cultivate a network of researchers who are working at a similar methodological intersection."
In the past year, the network has brought together graduate students from the Divinity School and Duke’s graduate programs in religion, sociology, and history to enhance collaboration in the use of qualitative methods by humanists and theologians. Participants gathered monthly to discuss practical concerns related to these methods, such as participant-observation and qualitative interviewing, and the possibilities and challenges that emerge from the use of such methods.
Each meeting focused on a set of texts that address the use of qualitative methods from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Two initial readings framed the conversation: Jon Bialecki’s “Anthropology and Theology in Parallax” outlines the ethnographic turn among theologians from the perspective of a leading anthropologist, and Frédéric Vandenberghe’s “Sociology as Practical Philosophy and Moral Science” considers the possibility of a moral sociology.
Jon Bialecki joined the network via Skype to discuss his A Diagram for Fire: Miracles and Variation in an American Charismatic Movement. Todd Whitmore, a key figure in the ethnographic turn in theology, joined the network for a lunch workshop and discussion of his Imitating Christ in Magwi: An Anthropological Theology.
In concert with Whitmore’s visit, the network extended its reach to Duke’s broader academic community by hosting a panel discussion on March 29 that considered the history and promise of qualitative approaches for theological research and inquiry. Titled “Looking Back, Looking Forward: Reflections on Theology and the Social Sciences,” this panel was moderated by Bretherton and featured reflections from David Eagle (Duke Global Health Institute), Jan Holton (Divinity School), and Todd Whitmore (University of Notre Dame).
Panelists and participants considered prospects for convergence and exchange between theologians and social scientists. Panelists spoke optimistically of using qualitative methods to raise theological questions and develop constructive theological proposals. The event was featured on the website of The Network for Ecclesiology & Ethnography.
"The formation of the Theology, Religion & Qualitative Methods Network provided space for conversations and reflection at critical period in my research," Benac said. "Drawing upon my qualitative work in the Pacific Northwest, I was undertaking an interdisciplinary dissertation at the intersection of theology and organizational theory. This richly collaborative, interdisciplinary, and collegial environment provided opportunities to reflect with peers about the particulars of our projects and then engage with faculty experts about our emerging research. This collaborative work and the relationships that have formed will enrich my research, writing, teaching, and institutional service for years to come."