Lockdown Ramadan: researching religion using visual methods

Diary-based research is one of the lesser-used qualitative research methods and is particularly underused in sociological studies of religion. Visual methods are also sparse in this field. For my PhD on Ramadan in the UK, I collected photo diaries charting Muslim experiences of the month. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the diaries I collected documented an unusual ‘lockdown Ramadan’ for British Muslims. Here, I provide an overview of the methods used and some reflections on these which may be useful for academics exploring such methods in their work. I propose that diary and visual methods can be especially useful in capturing lived experiences of religion.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

Why photo diaries?

Diaries are often used in research to capture events, activities or emotions ‘in the moment’ since they tend to be completed at, or close to, the time when events happen. For my study of the religiously significant time of Ramadan, this was important. Diaries also allowed me to access the private space and experience of Ramadan within homes and families, which would otherwise be difficult to observe. Couldry et al (2010: 46) describe how diaries allow researchers to “observe… phenomena that the presence of a researcher would distort”. For this reason, diaries could be useful in documenting various aspects of everyday religious practice. Diaries allowed my participants to reflect on “taken-for-granted activities” (Alaszewski 2006: 37), including family traditions during the month, which may not have arisen during interviews. This focus on the ‘taken for granted’ is another reason why diaries may be attractive in studies of lived religion.

I asked participants to include a photo (or photos) with each entry to emphasise visual aspects of the month and aid reflection on their activities. Ammerman and Williams (2012) note “religion is itself visual and material, and our methods should reflect that fact” citing examples such as places of worship, religious dress and statues. They suggest that visual methods have been neglected in the sociology of religion. When designing my study, I encountered numerous visual aspects of Ramadan — decorations, advent-style calendars, and food — that I wanted to include in my research, hence my use of photographs. Similar to the diary method, Ammerman and Williams (2012) emphasise that visual methods can go beyond “taken-for-granted categories” and pre-existing ideas of researchers, which is helpful when studying lived religion. I wanted my study to extend beyond my own experience of the holy month and beyond common rituals associated with it, another reason for using visual methods.

A flexible method

I was intentionally flexible with the format in which diaries could be submitted, allowing participants to use email, WhatsApp or other social media. I encouraged participants to send daily entries but allowed them to submit entries as often as feasible for them. I did this to increase the uptake and range of participants and not let people be put off by the commitment diaries would take. This flexibility avoids critiques of diaries for research as “a white middle-class habit, which may perhaps be rather outdated” (Scourfield et al 2013: 70) by allowing participants to use social media, arguably a modern-day form of diarising daily life. This flexibility was appreciated by participants, with WhatsApp proving an especially convenient tool. I also received several email and Instagram post diaries, some via personal blogs, one Twitter diary and one via Instagram ‘story’.

Methodological challenges

The loosely structured approach I took with the diaries meant I needed to ensure I could address my research questions using the data. This was why I undertook post-diary interviews with a sample of diarists. These interviews supplemented diary data by covering research topics that may have been missed from diaries and contextualising the ways participants produced diaries — Couldry et al (2010) talk further about contextualising diaries with interviews. Asking participants about the process of compiling the diary also revealed further insights on the research topic. The participant who used Instagram stories, for example, explained that she did this so others could read and reflect on her thoughts — it was an important part of her Ramadan experience that she could bring benefit to others during the month.

Other challenges encountered were logistical — I had to find ways of converting data sent via various platforms into a form I could compare easily. I decided to save each participant’s diary into a Word document (text and pictures) as well as saving photos as individual files. This was easier on some platforms than others — for Instagram posts, I screenshotted photographs since I could not copy them directly; Twitter posts involved formatting after copying; and WhatsApp images did not copy alongside the text but had to be inserted separately. This process was a bit of a ‘baptism of fire’ because as soon as Ramadan started I was inundated with diaries via WhatsApp, email etc and quickly had to start organising them. An Excel spreadsheet was essential in tracking entries I received and formatted.

Insights from diary research

There were some surprising insights from my diary research that I had not expected initially. The first was related to the revealing nature of diaries in that participants told me personal things they may not have communicated via interviews. Some participants reflected on their mental struggles — one poignant photo was an image of a participant’s eyes full of tears. Others discussed arguments with family members, which they seemed somewhat embarrassed about having written later on. These examples highlight how diary research is able to go below the surface of religious activities towards personalised experiences.

Secondly, participants repeatedly told me that completing the diary enhanced their experience of Ramadan. I was told that Islam teaches Muslims to reflect during Ramadan and that their diaries encouraged this reflective process, making the month more meaningful. Additionally, many appreciated having a documented account of Ramadan in lockdown that they could refer back to. This highlights the dynamic interaction between research and participants’ lives and the impact they have on each other. The reflective process of diary-making may prove advantageous for other studies of lived religion, being beneficial for both researchers and participants.

Laura Jones is a second-year Jameel PhD student at the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK at Cardiff University. She is researching experiences of Ramadan in the UK with a focus on Ramadan in lockdown in 2020. You can contact her at jonesla24@cardiff.ac.uk.

References

Alaszewski, A. 2006. Using Diaries for Social Research. London: SAGE Publications.

Ammerman, N.T. and Williams, R.R. 2012. Speaking of Methods: Eliciting Religious Narratives through Interviews, Photos, and Oral Diaries. In: Berzano, L. and Riis, O.P. (Eds.) Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion 2012, Volume 3: New Methods in the Sociology of Religion. Lieden: Brill. Pp. 117–134.Couldry et al. 2010

Couldry, N. et al. 2010. Media Consumption and Public Engagement: Beyond the Presumption of Attention (2nd Ed.). UK: Palgrave Macmillan.