Research and scholarship

Currently, three projects bring together my interests in visual sociology and religion. Seeing and Believing investigates the use of photovoice in interfaith dialogue and gathers data on religion in the everyday lives of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish participants. I see this research as a form of engaged scholarship, an effort to learn with participants and to pursue social change through my work.

Cultivating Community is an ethnography of an urban farm situated on a church property. The project brings together data collected over a four-year period using techniques of visual ethnography, photo elicitation, and photovoice. I plan to present a paper titled, “Pizza Farming and the Curious Case of an Urban Farm on a Church Property,” at the 2020 annual meeting of the International Visual Sociology Association.

Finally, Converted Structures is a faculty–student collaboration that investigates the prevalence and meaning(s) of religious buildings converted to secular uses (e.g., church to condos) and vice versa. The photograph shown in the page header is an example: this Baptist church in Washington DC was converted into an art gallery. It is a project that grew out of a personal interest in these kinds of conversions: wherever I travel, I try to photograph a converted building. Currently, my team is working through a data set that allows us to identify buildings converted between 2003 and 2018. Our focus is on two dozen cities in the United States. Once these locations are mapped, a typology of conversions will emerge and we will select examples of each type for further study.

The potential of visual research methods in the sociology of religion is vast, but largely untapped. This comes as a surprise, however, given the visual, symbolic, and material nature of religion and spirituality. Evidence of religious faith and practice is materially present in everything from clothing and jewelry to artifacts found in people’s homes and workplaces. Not only is religion’s symbolic and material presence palpable throughout society, it also informs attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of countless people worldwide. Words-and-numbers approaches to social research, however, sometimes miss important dimensions of religion and spirituality in the contemporary world. Seeing Religion is an invitation to a visual sociology of religion. Contributors draw from their current research to discuss the application of visual methods to the study of religion and spirituality. Each chapter stimulates the sociological imagination through examples of research techniques, analytical approaches, and methodological concerns.

Click on the book cover for more information about Seeing Religion.

Chapters

Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion, Volume 3: New Methods in the Sociology of Religion

“Speaking of Methods: Eliciting Religious Narratives through Interviews, Photos, and Oral Diaries” (with Nancy T. Ammerman), Pp. 117–134.

Edited by L. Berzano and O. Riis. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion, Volume 10: From Religion to Geopolitics

“Through One Another’s Lenses: Photovoice and Interfaith Dialogue” (with William L. Sachs, Catherine Holtmann, Elena G. van Stee, Kaitlyn Eekhoff, Michael Bos, and Ammar Amonette), July 25, 2019.

Edited by Guiseppe Giordan and Andrew P. Lynch. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Articles

Engaging and Researching Congregations Visually: Photovoice in a Mid-Sized Church

Roman R. Williams
Ecclesial Practices, Volume 6, Issue 1, 2019, Pages 5–27.

ABSTRACT
Visual research shows promise in the study of congregations. And with so many people carrying cameras to worship services in the form of a smartphone, opportunities abound for those interested in visual approaches to research and engagement. This article explores the potential of a participatory action technique known as photovoice in congregational settings through a case study of a church located in the midwestern region of the United States. Photovoice, it is argued, gives participants permission to discuss matters of personal significance, builds relational bridges across differences (in this case, across different age cohorts), and may help a congregation to see itself from new perspectives. Likewise, the materials produced in a photovoice project comprise a rich collection of data that may be analyzed by a researcher to explore themes central to their research agenda. When used in conjunction with familiar ethnographic practices such as fieldnotes and interviews, photovoice can become a valuable component of a project that pursues both research and engagement.

Visual Tools for Visual Times: Innovation and Opportunity in the Visual Sociology of Religion

Roman R. Williams
Review of Religious Studies: History and Society, Volume 14, Issue 2, 2018, Pages 98–130.

ABSTRACT
Originally presented as a plenary address entitled “Religion: Art and Voices” at the First International Congress of Religious Studies (Mackenzie University, 9 November 2016), this article explores the opportunities presented by the prevalence of camera-equipped mobile phones and the resulting visual culture, and invites scholars of religion to use the tools of visual sociology. The article first provides a working definition of visual sociology and situates that definition in its historical context. Then three case studies are presented as examples of how visual techniques are being used to research and engage religious organizations and individuals: (1) photo elicitation, (2) photovoice, and (3) a mobile app called SpeakingPhoto. The article closes with a consideration of the benefits of studying religion visually.

Religion, Migration, and Change in a European City

Roman R. Williams
Contexts: Understanding People in their Social Worlds, Volume 15, Issue 4, 2016, Pages 48–57.

ABSTRACT
In Antwerp I was struck by the contrasts between the majority and minority religious and ethnic cultures. Howard Becker suggested that we could think of photographs as answers to questions, that it was the job of the visual sociologist to discern what those questions are. My photographs invite questions about the dividing lines between secular and sacred, the presence or absence of religious artifacts, and how identities are constructed and maintained, just to name a few. They make me wonder about the strategies people use to create and maintain boundaries around their communities or identities. Ultimately, these photos stimulate more questions: What does it mean to be Belgian, Moroccan, Turkish, and/or Romanian? How do people construct and communicate their identities as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and/or secular? And what will become of these identities as the future unfolds?

Photo Elicitation and the Visual Sociology of Religion

Roman R. Williams and Kyle Whitehouse
Review of Religious Research, Volume 57, Issue 2, 2015, Pages 303–318.

ABSTRACT
Visual research methods—image-based techniques for collecting, analyzing, and explaining data—are not mainstream in the social scientific study of religion. Few sociologists employ them, fewer still to study religion. While mainstream qualitative and quantitative methods have much to offer, words and numbers alone may miss important dimensions of religion and spirituality in the contemporary world. This research note provides an overview of work on the most commonly used visual research technique in the sociology of religion: photo elicitation (PE). We frame our essay around four questions. What is visual sociology? What is photo elicitation? How has PE been used in the social scientific study of religion? And how else could this technique be utilized in religious research?

Constructing a Calling

Roman R. Williams
Sociology of Religion, Volume 74, Issue 3, 2013, Pages 254–280.

ABSTRACT
In this study of evangelical Christians from India, China, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan enrolled in American colleges and universities, the idea of a calling emerged as an important component of identity and action. A narrative approach that incorporates visual methods was used to collect the stories of 46 interviewees in Boston and two cities in China. Among study participants, 78 percent specifically connect their faith to their professional aspirations; and all participants refer to their future career as a calling and/or part of “God’s plan.” Through involvement in conservative Christian congregations, I argue, these women and men are socialized into communities in which the narratives of who they are, what it means to be a Christian, and how their faith relates to the many domains of modern life are part of the conversation. The idea of a calling is carried by these narratives and offers study participants a compelling way to interpret the past, navigate everyday life in the present, and pursue a meaningful future.

“Space for God: Lived Religion at Work, Home, and Play”

Roman R. Williams
Sociology of Religion, Volume 71, Issue 3, 1 October 2010, Pages 257–279.

ABSTRACT
Despite modernity’s attempt to structure religion out of many social domains, people still make space for God—the sacred, spirituality, religion, transcendence, etc.—in their everyday lives. Religion may be less apparent at times, but it is not altogether absent and continues to show up beyond its taken-for-granted boundaries. Drawing from photo elicitation interview materials generated by the Spiritual Narratives in Everyday Life project, I explore the ways in which religion and spirituality intersect with the domains of home, work, and leisure. At first blush, photos of homes, bedrooms, offices, beaches, pets, and gardens do not appear to be enchanted. But when one looks to the stories behind the photos, it becomes evident that the meanings these narratives convey and actions they evoke push back against the social structure as individuals leverage contextual features of everyday life to construct space for God.