How did we come to study prayer in Canadian and British hospitals?

This project on prayer in hospital settings in Canada and Britain is part serendipity and part long-term planning. Serendipity as we had not been planning to study prayer as a specific spiritual practice until there was a call for research on new directions in the study of prayer a few years ago. That got Sonya and I thinking creatively and with a few twists and turns, here we are, with a project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The project fits nicely with an established and ongoing program of research on the negotiation of religious, spiritual, and cultural plurality in healthcare.

So how does one study prayer?  In our case, we are interested in the social relations of prayer, and thus our work is contributing to the new field of sociology of prayer. This approach sets our study apart from other research that looks at the theology of prayer, the psychology of prayer, and the health effects of prayer, and so on. To get at the social relations of prayer, we are conducting fieldwork in hospitals (and longterm care facilities) in two cities—Vancouver and London. Fieldwork involves talking, walking, listening, observing, writing, thinking, absorbing. We are interviewing spiritual health practitioners (aka chaplains) as our entrée to the project. They are taking us to various places in their facilities where they have had meaningful prayer encounters, and telling us about these encounters. They are also writing reflections in research diaries. We are hearing from administrators, healthcare professionals (e.g., doctors, nurses, social workers), and volunteers, including community faith leaders. We are speaking with patients and families about their views on prayer in healthcare settings. These varied sources of data are then carefully analyzed (assisted with a software program known as NVivo) and will be shared in various formats and venues.

We’ve also been asked how “we” came about – in other words, how did this group of researchers come to work together? Sonya and I have collaborated on various projects since 2007 and have both benefited from our interdisciplinary and complementary backgrounds – myself as a nurse and Sonya as a feminist sociologist. For this project, we’ve also benefited tremendously from our respective geographic locales—Sonya in London and myself in Vancouver. The research team has brought additional disciplinary and geographic expertise.

This blog serves as one venue of sharing our research findings….we hope you’ll enjoy hearing about how we are studying the social relations of prayer in hospitals!

Here is a picture of some of us on an introductory fieldwork visit in Vancouver last spring – Rachel Brown (scholar of religion + anthropologist, Ontario); Sonya Sharma (sociologist, London UK); Brenda Smith (nurse, Vancouver); and Kyla Janzen (nurse, Calgary).


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