Rice and Notre Dame to conduct first panel study of religion and ethnicity

August 04, 2003

HOUSTON - Aug. 4, 2003 -- To understand how and why individuals' and families' religious beliefs and behaviors change among different ethnic groups throughout their lives and across generations, sociologists at Rice University and the University of Notre Dame will conduct the first panel study of religion and ethnicity in the U.S. with a $3.396 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.

"Our purpose is to increase knowledge of how religion and faith work, and to aid congregations in their efforts to encourage the spiritual formation and growth of individuals and families in the midst of a rapidly changing world," said principal investigator Michael Emerson, the Radoslav A. Tsanoff Chair in Public Affairs and professor of sociology.at Rice. He will collaborate with David Sikkink, assistant professor of sociology at Notre Dame.

A panel study follows the same people over the course of their lives. The research will begin with in-home surveys of 2,500 people across the nation. The participants will be interviewed every three years for the rest of their lives, and their children, upon reaching the age of 18, will be asked to join the study as well.

"By surveying the same people repeatedly, we will be able to not only observe social and religious change, but also to learn why change is occurring," Emerson said.

Emerson and Sikkink sought the input of church leaders and religion scholars to determine the issues that need to be addressed in the survey. Topics ranged from religious beliefs, identity and practices to racial identity and attitudes, demographics, place of residence and civic involvement.

Among the questions the study will try to answer are the following:"Religion has never been studied in the manner we've proposed," he said. "A panel study of religion will allow us to tell stories about the role of faith in people's lives. Stories always have been the most important way humans have understood their world, and for that reason alone, it is important to take life stories seriously when investigating the relation of religion and social change."

Because ethnicity and race are at the heart of the American experience, Emerson felt that including ethnicity as a focus of his panel study would be vital. "Immigration, racism, segregation, efforts toward integration, and inequality are central to American society, and ethnicity and race are deeply implicated in the nature of religious communities, religious faith and religious practice in the United States," he said.

Although participants in the study will be randomly selected by computer, the researchers plan to oversample non-whites so that they constitute half of the participants. This should provide researchers and religious communities with subsamples large enough to examine the changing affiliations and religious practices of Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans.

Face-to-face interviews in the participants' homes will be used for the first round of surveys because they provide more accurate and comprehensive baseline data, especially on background and demographic information, and they're likely to produce at least a 72 percent response rate, Emerson said. Follow-up surveys will be conducted by telephone every three years. With children being added to the surveys as they become adults, the number of respondents in the panel study is expected to double every 30 years or so. Families will be paid $50 to participate.

A survey research center at the University of Michigan will be subcontracted to do the initial interviews between May and December 2004. Emerson expects to publish the findings in the spring of 2005 on an interactive Web site.

"We hope this will become a national data set for people with an interest in race and religion, including scholars, clergy and politicians working on public policy," he said.

Rice and Notre Dame will fund the second round of interviews for the panel study, as part of their support of the research.
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Lilly Endowment, based in Indianapolis, is a private philanthropic foundation established in 1937 by J.K. Lilly Sr. and his sons, J.K. Jr. and Eli, to support education, community development and religion.

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