Understanding the Work of Women in Religion
Researching the faith lives of girls and women has been central to my work since 1999, beginning with a short study of a women’s prayer group,1 followed by long-term fieldwork in England from 2003 until the time of writing in 2011,2 made possible through three separately-funded studies through the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council. The longitudinal studies spanned three generations of people ranging in age from 14 to 84, from different social classes and evenly split by gender. My current project, again funded by Economic and Social Research Council, focuses exclusively on Anglican women born in the 1920s and ’30s, the cohort I have named ‘Generation A’. In this chapter, I draw on some of that theory to illuminate cases from my longitudinal studies; I focus on women of faith, looking beyond a narrow conception of faith as ‘belief’ alone. My research concludes that exploring the interaction of different dimensions of belief and belonging reveal a richer nature of religiosity. That was why I developed an interpretive model to focus not just on the content of belief but belief’s resources, practices, salience and functions. To study belief longitudinally, new elements of place and time were incorporated. This holistic, organic, multi-dimensional framework developed the research beyond standard sociological techniques to an enhanced anthropological approach introducing a performative, dynamic element. This process, which I termed ‘performative belief’, refers to a neo-Durkheimian construct where belief is a lived, embodied performance brought into being through action. Within a social context are social relationships: performative belief plays out through the relationships in which people have faith and to which they feel they belong. Belief in social relationships is performed through social actions of both belonging and excluding.