|Department of Religious Studies, Furness College, Lancaster University LA1 4YG.|
About the Street Survey
The area we chose is set to one side of the town centre. At one end is a lane of small, two-up two-down houses, facing onto a street of slightly larger, but still traditional terraced homes, set around a small green area. Further up the hill the houses start to get bigger, until you turn into a private road of grand, imposing mansions, many of which have been split into two or more dwellings, and some into flats. At the end of the private road is a very large old school building which has been converted into luxury flats. Finally, the road drops down again into a fairly new development of about 40 detached and semi-detached houses.
For four months, from December 2001 to March 2002, Karin knocked on the door of each one of these 116 widely varied houses, to invite people to participate in short interviews about their attitudes to religion, their beliefs and their religious practices. A short letter had previously been distributed in the area, explaining the project and informing people that the researcher was going to call. Responses to this request varied widely, from those who politely refused the interview, some citing time pressures, others on the basis that ‘we don’t talk about that sort of thing’, to those who responded monosyllabically to the interview questions, right through to those who invited the researcher into the house and chatted for an hour. Responses were recorded on the interview schedule by hand, and written up as soon as possible afterwards. In total, 30 people refused to be involved in an interview, 40 houses were either empty or there was no answer after 3 visits at different times of the day and week, and interviews were done with 57 individuals in 46 houses.
The interview was designed to be as open as possible given the constraints of the circumstances, to allow respondents to express things in their own way. After briefly explaining the aims of the project, the interview began with a question about beliefs: “So would you say that you believe in anything?” The interview then went on to cover five principal areas: the person’s beliefs, whether they were or ever had been churchgoers, whether they were or ever had been involved in holistic network activities, whether they engaged in any activities on their own that they considered to be religious or spiritual, and whether they had ever had a ‘spiritual experience’, phrased following David Hay (1982) as“Have you ever been aware of, or influenced by, a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?”
A copy of the interview schedule can be found here. The interview schedule was used as a guide, but the interviewer was given the freedom to probe and improvise where appropriate to maintain the dialogue and get a deeper understanding of what the person was trying to communicate. Although Karin did experience a certain level of wariness from many at first encounter, the majority of people she spoke to, once they had agreed to be interviewed and the encounter had begun, spoke freely about their religious histories and backgrounds.
This collection of interviews is not, of course, a quantitatively representative sample of the population of Kendal. However, it does show clearly that there is a very wide range of differing positions on spirituality and religion available to people in Kendal today, and gives insights into the ways these different positions are related or contradictory. By asking unstructured questions and engaging people in a relatively open dialogue, we were able to explore how people themselves speak about issues of religion, spirituality and belief, in ways that structured surveys cannot. This approach allows us to explore people’s own explanatory paradigms, rather than forcing them to choose between pre-selected alternatives, a particularly useful strategy for discovery given how little we know about how people outside the associational domains conceptualise religious and spiritual beliefs and positions.