So this afternoon I met with Dr. Ray Christensen, my professor for Political Science 200: Political Inquiry, and told him about my project. After explaining to him a little bit of the history about the field study project and how it was the reason I decided to take Political Science 200 this semester, I told him about my research project and how I would be studying religion this summer while I'm there.
During our approximately twenty-five minute discussion, we accomplished a great deal. First of all, Dr. Christensen confirmed my observation that a descriptive study of opinions about religion would attract significantly less attention than an analytical one, and I should probably change my research question to reflect that. That, alone, is a pretty big change. He suggested that I study the difference in opinions of the elites about religion and compare those views to the opinions of the general population in England. I explained to him my concept idea for a survey that would ask Londoners to choose how many trends in the country listed on the survey they considered to have a negative effect on the nation. I would have a control group where "declining religiosity" would not be included, and a test group where it would be included. At that point, Dr. Christensen explained that surveys are extremely hard to use because it is so difficult to make them random. Call centers try to do the job by randomly calling numbers and talking to the people who answer, and although that isn't a perfect system either, it's as good as they can get. Since I can't do that, we decided that I could analyze the census data for the whole country and for London, and choose maybe three or four or five districts in London that have an ethnic, social class, and religious makeup that is fairly representative of the whole country. I could go to those districts and ask people to take the survey myself, perhaps knocking on every fifth or tenth door, or asking one man and one woman per bus, or something like that. It would be arduous work, but the payoff would be very interesting. He suggested having a research question with a dependent and independent variable - for example, the secular opinions voiced by elites in the United Kingdom have caused decreasing levels of religious affiliation in the United Kingdom in the last decade. He said I could possibly measure the opinions of elites by searching the Times for the last 5 or 10 years for all references to religious affiliation or secularism and cite how many times secular views were expressed by these elites. I suggested that I could look up comments given about religion by elites in the last year and compare how many positive statements were given as opposed to negative ones. Or, I could find a published list of "the most influential people" in the United Kingdom, or something of the sort, and then study each person on a case by case basis to see what kinds of views they have expressed about religion. Then I could compare that data to the data collected in my survey to see how the views of the elites line up with the views of the masses.
Another idea that I've had just thinking about it now would be to ask people to rate how favorably they feel about a statement made by a well-known person in society without telling them who said it, and include statements that were positive about religion and others that were negative about religion. I could compare how favorably people responded to these statements. I'll have to ask Dr. Christensen to get a better idea of how to do that though.
Anyway, overall, it was an incredibly productive conversation, and I recorded most of it on my iPhone so I can go back and listen again to remember some of the things we discussed. Dr. Christensen said that although he wouldn't be able to collaborate with me for a class over the summer, he would gladly be my faculty mentor. Also, I decided while we were talking that I would do my second Research Design assignment in the class on the topic chosen for the Field Study project, and Dr. Christensen agreed that it would definitely help. I'm more excited than ever about doing this project, and even though it's still pretty frightening, I think it could really make an impact on the debate in the country if it is very well-written and has a good research design. This will be some trip to London ;)