Provost’s Digital Innovation Grants: Researching Contemporary Religion in the Age of Big Data

Researching Contemporary Religion in the Age of Big Data: Mapping the Church-Planting Movement

John Boy, Sociology

John Boy

This project seeks to develop and implement a way of studying religion in an era of big data. Religious traditions are increasingly deterritorialized, that is, they are increasingly free-floating and less congruent with the sites and civilizations with which they were long identified. At the same time, we are living in digital societies in which social life, including religious life, leaves an enormous quantity of digital traces, and often few others. Under these conditions, the study of contemporary and popular religion has to draw on different “archives” and use a different set of methods than before. Established methods of social research, whether qualitative or quantitative, are likely to miss an important part of the story of religion in the contemporary world. Increasingly, the study of religion has to identify patterns in many terabytes of data accumulated on social networking sites and other parts of the web. This project seeks to develop a method for using big data for the study of contemporary religion drawing on the Common Crawl Foundation’s dataset of over five billion websites, and as a proof of concept, it uses this approach to map the spread of “church planting” as a discourse and organizational strategy in contemporary evangelicalism. Both the code used in the analysis and the results will be published on a website hosted by the Committee for the Study of Religion at The Graduate Center.

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