Academic Spotlight
Faculty Research, Performance and Exhibitions

Scholar Pursues Heart of Religious Beliefs Across Cultural Institutions


Story posted January 20, 2006

Assistant Professor of Sociology Wendy Cadge has been on a sweeping academic journey since she joined Bowdoin's sociology and anthropology department faculty in 2003.

She has published groundbreaking research on homosexuality in mainline Protestant churches, published a book on the rise of Theravada Buddhism in the United States, and has completed significant research for a new book on spirituality in hospitals. To top it off, she recently received a grant for collaborative research on how religion influences the experiences of immigrants in small cities - Portland, Maine, among them.

"Nothing I write will be any better than the relationships I've developed with the people I'm writing about."

"I'm fundamentally interested in how the world looks through different people's eyes," says Cadge, who is spending the 2005-2006 academic year at Harvard as a post-doctoral fellow in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholars in Health Policy Research Program. "Religion is one set of ideas, among many sets, through which some people see the world."

Her scholarly examination of religion began during her undergraduate studies at Swarthmore. It was through one of those happy accidents a liberal-arts education sometimes affords: "I wanted to take a philosophy course to learn to think big ideas," she laughs. "But those classes were full. Registration for religion classes was at the next table and I thought religion ...philosophy, that's probably the same stuff."

As Cadge deepened her studies of religion, she was frustrated by what she perceived as a disconnect between a largely textual approach and what occurs in the "real" world. "I wanted to know why and how I could sit in a Methodist church and see some people paying attention and see some people making their grocery lists on the backs of their church programs," she says.

She found an answer in a sociology research class. There, she learned methods for developing site-specific observations, interviews and surveys to give a living context for textual scholarship. In a project for that class, she went to a conservative Protestant church near the college and started to study church members' attitudes and beliefs about homosexuality, then a little-studied area.

Eventually, this research became the basis for an undergraduate honors thesis and future studies focused on the history and policy statements of mainline Protestant denominations on homosexuality and a study of how 40 local congregations are responding to homosexuality.

Three papers from the study of congregations were conducted in collaboration with two Bowdoin students - Heather Day '06 and Tucker Harrison '06 - and are currently under review. An additional article about how religion influences public opinion about same-sex marriage will be published this spring in Social Science Quarterly.

Cadge book jacket

Cadge's research regularly blends participant observation, interviews, and quantitative analysis. For her book, Heartwood: The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America (University of Chicago Press, 2005), Cadge spent more than a year in two communities of Theravada Buddhists - one outside of Boston that consists of mostly white converts, and one outside Philadelphia comprised primarily of Thai immigrants.

Her examination moves deftly between discussion of their respective organizational structures to first-person quotes demonstrating differences and similarities in their day-to-day practices of faith.

Cadge's inclusion of people's stories makes for a highly personal ethnography - arguably a requirement for studying a subject as subjective religion.

Buddhism teacherNarayan Liebenson Grady, a Buddhist teacher, leads a class at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, Mass., where Cadge studied the practice of Theravada Buddhism among primarily white converts studying there.

"Nothing I write will be any better than the relationships I've developed with the people I'm writing about," she says. "I think a lot of social scientists don't return their writing to the people they are writing about. I think you can do that and be sympathetic to their responses even while not always agreeing with the ways people see themselves. I try to tell the story in a way that includes all of our voices."

For her upcoming book on spirituality in hospitals, Cadge has been interviewing a range of hospital personnel - from technicians, to nurses, physicians and chaplains - to examine their role in providing spiritual support to patients. "There are some surveys in which people say prayer helps them more than doctors," notes Cadge, "but what of the caregivers? What part do their religious beliefs and practices play in their day to day work experience?"

She cites one survey that shows 80 percent of nurses saying there is something spiritual about the care they provide. "You hear amazing stories from the nurses," she says. "Also from respiratory therapists who silently pray for seriously ill patients while they're changing the settings on the equipment supporting the patient's breathing. Many nurses also have rituals including prayer that they go through when they lose a patient. "You can't always see how religion is present in hospitals - which is a challenge in this project."

Visibility seems to be a driving force in much of Cadge's work. She tries to publish general articles about each of her research projects in addition to publication in professional journals and regularly talks with members of the media.

"I think one of the most important things we can do as scholars is to talk with a wide range of people about our research, to illuminate through a broader context the way in which stories are told. "

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