A hybrid ethnography of religious life in post-pandemic Britain

A hybrid ethnography of religious life in post-pandemic Britain

Emmanuel Chiwetalu Ossai

Fieldwork | English | UK

Emmanuel Chiwetalu Ossai, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Manchester Metropolitan University

The Recovira team in the UK is studying how religious communities in the country have been affected by digitisation since early 2020 when the first COVID-19-related restrictions were implemented. One research approach that the team has adopted is a social scientific design known as ethnography, which researchers have used to study people’s culture.

Traditionally, the ethnographer does their research by spending a relatively large amount of time (like months or years) with the people being studied. During this time, the ethnographer conducts in-depth interviews with the people, observes the people’s activities and the happenings in their environments, and takes notes about these observations and the ethnographer’s own experiences on the field. However, this traditional approach to ethnography is no longer sufficient for some contemporary ethnographers.

A kind of ethnography that some social scientists do these days has been referred to as “hybrid ethnography.” This term is often used to refer to the ethnography in which the researcher combines the more traditional ethnography done in physical spaces, with a more digital kind of ethnography done mainly in online environments. For example, a hybrid ethnographer who is studying how a religious community operates in a Britain emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic will (a) join the community in person when it meets, for example, on Sundays for worship, and (b) attend the community’s virtual activities on Zoom or other digital spaces.

Since February 2023, one of the two postdoctoral research associates on the UK Recovira Team, Emmanuel Ossai, has been using a hybrid ethnographic approach to investigate the post-pandemic religious experience in Pentecostal Christian, Theravada Buddhist, and Triratna Buddhist communities in the Greater Manchester area. His research methods have included in-depth interviews with leaders and lay persons in the religious communities, and observation at the communities’ in-person and virtual events.

As of June 2023, Emmanuel has conducted research at two Black-majority parishes of an originally Nigerian church, and one Theravada Buddhist vihara (monastery) which is mostly attended by the Sri Lankan expatriates residing in several parts of England. Emmanuel has identified some major findings about COVID-19-driven visible and less visible changes, as well as short-lived and more long-term changes, within the religious communities. Emmanuel continues to collect ethnographic data, while he transcribes the previously conducted interviews. Currently, he is studying a Black-majority church in Salford, Manchester, and a Buddhist Centre that exists primarily on the internet and whose daily meditations are held virtually only.

Image credit: AI image generated by Clipdrop by Stability AI "An image of a computer with religious symbols on the screen."

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