Mapping Religious Diversity in Modern Sichuan

A Spatial and Social Study of Communities and Networks

Theories and Methods

Our project also encourages a methodology that highlights not static distinctions between religious traditions, but looks for active networks, relationships, mutual influences, collaborations.

Thus, we are not only focusing on a different territory, but we are looking at this territory in a different way, trying to highlight interactions and the permeability of religious borders, and at how the space in itself is an active agent in the formation and development of those relationships and networks. We believe that the case of Sichuan lends itself perfectly to this kind of methodological approach.

The field of social network theories has a long history, where math diagrams and social sciences have converged to produce theorems that could explain underlying patterns in the social structure.

This project will rely on previous theories of community sociology and social network analyses articulated by, among the others, sociologists Barry Wellman, James A. Beckford, and also Manuel Castells.

While considering the existing concepts of socio-centric network and open-system network, this project will also articulate new analytical concepts such as ‘intra-religious network‘ and ‘inter-religious network‘, and therefore interact further with spatial science frameworks.

Our starting point is that the plurality of religious and cultural traditions in Sichuan has been practiced by religious communities, which can be grouped into larger networks. By ‘intra-religious network‘ we mean a network of communities belonging to the same religious traditions and located in different areas within Sichuan.

‘Inter-religious network‘ is identified with a network of communities belonging to different religious traditions but located within a same small area (like a city district) in Sichuan. In this way we will conduct spatial studies of religion on a quantitative level through the application of geographic information system technology, and also on a qualitative level by questioning how space influences (and also defines) religious practice and community formation.

The project will then link to other studies like the ongoing project The Spatial Study of Chinese Religions and Society (2014-2016) at Purdue University.

Network‘ will function as analytical tool in the analysis not only of the synchronic relations among religious communities in Sichuan, but also of their diachronic development. A network-based history will propose an alternative narrative that focuses on communities and networks. 

Space’ is intended here not in the sense of the territory passive recipient of a living society, but as the territory that holds a specific identity marker that the community also inherits; space is then an active agent in the making of a community and a network, not a passive container of lived religions.

Our research will show how space and communities alternate each other as subject and object in the power dynamics of the religious and social landscape. Recently, scholarship in physical geography, human geography and anthropology has cooperated towards the creation of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of society and space.

Doreen Massey has become a leader in the attempt to engage physical geography with human geography, and in highlighting the centrality of ‘place’; her works are a methodological reference for our project.

Each researcher will adopt several other methods and theories, to better fit their focus on the study of rituals and material culture, gender studies, trans-regional religious networks and identity, relationship between religion and ethnicity, the role of market forces.