Program - Day 8 - Wednesday 6 August

Section ll - Virtual Worlds / Day 8

Pop up Performance: How to Research Rituals in Virtual Worlds

Kerstin Radde and Simone Heidbrink (Heidelberg)

In the 1990s nobody expected people to be one day performing religious rituals online. However the so-called "Gobal Village" has become a reality even for religion. But how can we research religion online?



In the academic field of Cultural Studies, like in other cultural and social disciplines, the relevance of the Internet as new media is constantly increasing. New areas of scholarly research are to be found on homepages, weblogs, in chat rooms, in newsgroups and in virtual 3D environments, where religious and spiritual topics are presented and incessantly negotiated. The Internet could be seen as a cultural context of its own right, as Christine Hine stated in her programmatic book Virtual ethnography. In this respect it has become an important part of our cultural and scientific assets, heritage and memory. As such it also forms, modifies and creates new cultural structures. Therefore, the challenges of this media provide the scholar with materials in a still mainly unexplored field of research, demanding new scientific methods and methodologies in order to analyse the likewise new realm of religious beliefs and utterances in this virtual space.

Looking at the constantly growing field of ritual supply and demand online, the shifts in and the new definition of religious and ritualistic frameworks in Cyberspace become an increasingly important topic. In the field of Ritual Studies, it is not only the participant, location and conduction of the ritual that is affected by this shift; also the researchers have to overthrow their former theologically resp. systemic based definition of religiousness and spirituality due to the fact that on the Internet, religion is defined and realized in a different way by its participants.

However, by establishing Cyberspace as ritual space the suppliers and users of Rituals Online in the early days could not foresee the speed of the technical developments which would take place in the following years until today when the interconnection and interconnectivity of web applications accumulated in what usually (and slightly euphemistically) is called Web 2.0. Nowadays, religious individuals and organizations do not only have to come to terms with the representation of religious content on the Internet they even have to decide, whether or not to express and most of all - practice their religion within the newly created virtual and ritual spaces. Virtual worlds like Second Life offer a rich space for constructing religious and ritual supply in a playful environment. But is it merely playing? Or do rituals in these contexts answers also other, more serious purposes? What does it mean, when the users of so called Online games such as Diablo strongly demand the implementation of software, that allows them to conduct rituals (in this case, weddings)?

In order to find answers to these questions it is necessary to apply approaches from those disciplines that deal with related topics, like Media Studies, Social Sciences, Communication Studies, Art History and many more. These methods have to be adapted to fit the the requirement of the Internet as media compound and thus have to be joined to a so-called multimethodological approach, where the singular methods serve as tools in a toolbox. Only the combined use of a multitude of tools will achieve a proper and satisfactory result.

The two leaders of the workshop will exemplarily demonstrate methods to be applied to researching religion in the digital realm ranging from static webpages, blogs and interactive sites offering so-called Online Rituals to the new and exciting Virtual Worlds like Second Life or other online settings like Massively Multiplayer Online Games. We will (theroretically and in practise) talk about the problems and challenges of studying these new environments and will discuss topics like processes of Ritual Transfer and transformation, the formation of a new ritual proficiency online and its differences, similarities and interdependencies with the offline realm and problems of ritual efficacy etc.

We will discuss questions like:
−    How do approach this new field?
−    How do I contact the owners of the websites / blogs / ... I am researching?
−    What are the fundamental differences between an offline and an online ethnography? And which methods can I apply to research the digital world?
−    What are Online Rituals and how do they differ from Rituals Online?
−    What are the basic characteristics of rituals on the Internet? And are there fundamental differences to offline performances?
−    Can I apply the concepts of offline Ritual Theory? How can I adapt these concepts and theories to fit the digital realm? Which theories fit best?
−    How can I describe the transformation processes from the offline to the online space? And are there ritual exclusively developped in and for the Internet?
−    Are the rituals less efficacious because they are virtual? What does virtual mean in this context?

The most important task in this workshop is to pave the path and sensitize the participants to this new and exciting field of ethnographic research. At the end, a short field study will be conceptionalized by the participants where the theoretical and methodical reflections studied in the course of the day can be put into practise. Therefore the participants have a first research setting to be put into practise later on which might serve as a starting point or door opener for a future online study.

Kerstin Radde
Kerstin Radde
Dipl.-Theol., Research Fellow of the SFB 619, Institute for Religious Sciences, University of Heidelberg, Germany

Simone Heidbrink
Simone Heidbrink
M.A., Research Fellow of the SFB 619, Institute for Religious Sciences, University of Heidelberg, Germany