Conducting fieldwork in sacred spaces

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Created on Wednesday 28th February 2018 by:
Dr Tiina Sepp

I am a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the University of York and Research Fellow at the University of Tartu.

My role on the ‘Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals’ project is to research... [Read more...]

Before starting to work for the ‘Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals’ project, I had conducted fieldwork on one of the major pilgrimage routes – the Camino de Santiago in Spain. There are many parallels between the Camino and English cathedrals in the context of European religion and concerns with heritage. Designation of the Camino as European cultural heritage route transformed the Camino, just as growth in heritage tourism has had a big impact on cathedral visiting.

Carrying out fieldwork in sacred spaces can present various challenges. As a place for fieldwork, the Camino de Santiago is special in several ways: people have left their home for weeks or even months; they are often vulnerable, lonely and insecure; many would have started the Camino in order to find alleviation of the pain and suffering caused by the loss of someone close either through death or divorce. Similarly, cathedrals draw in many people who are in distress; several people are looking for answers to do with death. All this makes considerable ethical demands on the researcher.

Tiina on the Camino de Santiago in Spain
In terms of carrying out fieldwork in the cathedrals, the biggest challenge would probably have been finding the balance between getting people to complete questionnaires without imposing ourselves. As the information gathering process involved handing out paper questionnaires, we needed a space in the cathedrals where visitors could fill them in. The task of negotiating its location was not always easy – our table had to be prominent enough to catch the eye of the visitors; yet at the same time we had to make sure we would not get in the way of people. Seeing the reactions of people to the research going on inside the cathedral was illuminating. We were able to observe what impact an alien body such as our desk would have when placed into what is perceived as a sacred environment. It drew our attention to the sacredness of space, how different can be people’s perceptions of it, how they react if someone ‘invades’ their space. We saw how within the space of the cathedral there can be some very marked differences in degrees of sacredness.

In Canterbury and York, our table stood in pretty much the same place during all three rounds of fieldwork – south quire aisle in Canterbury and south transept in York. In Durham, it so happened that we were able to try out 3 different locations. We were first placed in the west end, just next to the information desk. The following year, due to works in the west end and the launching of the Open Treasure exhibition, we had our table in the south transept; and the following year we were located just near the north door exit, which was the best location as we got as many responses in a week than we did in a month with the table in the west end. Spending a long time looking at the cathedral from different vantage-points was in itself very helpful. In Westminster Cathedral we were first given what proved to be a rather inappropriate space – the Baptistry and the space in front of it. Immediately to the right of the Baptistry there is a tap with holy water and to the left a little statue of St Christopher, which some people like to touch. Even more importantly, we were situated just a couple of meters from the statue of St Anthony, which is clearly one of the ‘hot spots’ in the Cathedral – there would always be people praying and lighting candles to St Anthony. For the second and third phase of Westminster fieldwork our table stood opposite the main entrance, in a very prominent place where we were not in the way of the worshippers. That led to much better results in terms of completed questionnaires.

In Westminster we got considerably fewer responses than in the Anglican cathedrals. One of the reasons for this may have been to do with the nature of the Cathedral: its role as a place of worship is remarkably bigger than that of a place of sightseeing. From day one we noticed the confusion that our request to complete the questionnaire created among worshippers as well as visitors. In several cases it seemed that the worshippers assumed we were targeting tourists, and vice versa. This was never the case in the Anglican cathedrals that are used to being surveyed. The second reason was rather limited time. We did not ask people to complete questionnaires when there was a Mass going on, and there are 6 or 7 Masses during the day.

Another challenge in terms of questionnaires as well as fieldwork for PEC generally was that I was clearly marked out as ‘the lady from York University doing the survey’, a researcher, an outside observer. My Camino fieldwork consisted of becoming a pilgrim myself and adopting an emic, insider’s perspective. My fieldwork on the Camino was mostly about participant observation; in the cathedrals I was in the role of an observer most of the time.

Tiina's table where she carried out fieldwork in Canterbury Cathedral
When doing fieldwork on the Camino I would sometimes meet homeless people and street artists. In Santiago de Compostela, I would talk to the former pilgrims who were sketching or painting the Cathedral. Apart from sharing their views and experiences, they also introduced me to arriving pilgrims because at some point almost everybody seemed to stop and talk to them. Interviewing people who were perhaps more marginalised than ‘an average pilgrim’ helped me to get a more rounded overall impression of the Santiago pilgrimage. The fact that two of our case study cathedrals – Canterbury and York – charge for entry, had an impact on our fieldwork methodology and research as we had to exclude a certain group from our respondents/informants. Including the voices of the marginalised would have been very tricky in these places. Even though Durham has free entry they do not get many homeless people coming in. Perhaps it is because to get to Durham Cathedral you have to walk past the Salvation Army, and Salvation Army has a great reputation for helping people, so that might be the first port of call for those in need. Due to the open doors policy of Westminster Cathedral there are always homeless people both inside and outside the Cathedral.

Spending several days and even months in the cathedrals was a wonderful experience for me. I had several fascinating conversations not only with visitors but also with staff and volunteers, including voluntary chaplains. Perhaps the most profound and intense conversations I had were with the chaplains. Some chaplains take their pastoral role more seriously than others, and work not only with visitors and pilgrims but also with staff, volunteers and researchers.

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