Informant Ethnography

a section of

"Religious Ethnography on the World Wide Web"

by William Sims Bainbridge

Published in Religion and the Internet,
edited by Jeffrey K. Hadden and Douglas Cowan.
Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, 2000, pages 55-80.
Web-Based Afterlife Surveys
The Future of Religion
Ethnography, the systematic documentation of a culture, can be carried out over the World Wide Web, employing either observation or informant techniques. This section of a book chapter illustrates these potentials through a report on a series of online questionnaires designed to create new survey items and measurement scales. Online ethnographic questionnaires, administered by The Question Factory, collected material for 90 afterlife items and 100 future of religion items. The ultimate aim is to create a questionnaire-based system for uploading aspects of a human personality into a computer database for long-term storage, reanimation, and potential immortality.

The methodological approach described in this section might be called the inductive method of questionnaire construction. It is a rigorous form of ethnography, that charts the beliefs and opinions that a group of people has about the particular topic, beginning and ending with their own thoughts. Perhaps the best way to explain it is to begin by rooting it in the standard practices of traditional social psychology, and to use a well-known example, the development of the Machiavellianism scale by Richard Christie in the 1960s.[1] Modern sociology and political science are still influenced by ideas enunciated by the 16th-century Italian political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli, who was infamous for conceptualizing human relationships in terms of guile, deceit and opportunism. Christie believed that it would be worth creating a questionnaire instrument that measured the degree to which respondents shared Machiavelli's world-view.

Christie read through Machiavelli's writings, copying out a number of statements that expressed his view of human nature. Naturally, he had to edit some of Machiavelli's sentences to turn them into declarative statements, to cut out unnecessary words, and to combine pieces of an idea that were separated in the original by other verbiage. With the help of other scholars, he augmented the set of statements with others from other sources that seemed to express the same idea, until he had fully 71 statements that he framed in a questionnaire as agree-disagree items. Christie then administered this questionnaire to 1196 college students and used statistical analysis of the resulting data to identify a subset of 20 items that constituted a reliable measurement scale. The battery of 20 items and variants of it have been used in a very large number of empirical studies to identify the attitudinal and behavioral correlates of Machiavellianism.

In the sociology and psychology of religion, we could do the same thing with the writings of a leading religious figure such as St. Augustine or Norman Vincent Peale. But we can also obtain the material for our measurement scales from the rank-and-file members of a particular religious group, or from the general public. On May 23, 1997, The Question Factory was launched on the web to pilot online ethnographic methods for developing survey measurement scales and to achieve a particular set of religious goals.[2]

The fundamental idea is a two-stage process rather like that employed by Christie. In the first stage, a brief questionnaire is posted on the Web, consisting of a few open-ended questions soliciting ideas the respondents may have about a particular topic. At this point the researcher needs a practical way of recruiting respondents who have a range of views on the topic at hand. In actual practice, The Question Factory sought the help of professors teaching relevant courses to recruit their students, sent messages inviting the members of selected webrings to respond, placed a link on the website of a particular organization to recruit its members, and was able to include items in a massive survey being administered via the web by the National Geographic Society.

Once anywhere from a hundred to several thousand people had responded, their verbiage was culled for phrases that could be made into questionnaire items. This is comparable to scanning the writings of Machiavelli in search of statements that express his key ideas. This leads to the second phase of the process, creating an online or disk-based questionnaire incorporating the items, in order to collect data to assess the intercorrelations among items and thus identify reliable measurement scales. The general process could be adopted for a wide range of goals in religious studies, and many of the questionnaire items developed by The Question Factory could be used in reliable measurement scales in a variety of pure research studies. However, it is important to emphasize that the Web and associated new computing technologies are not merely fresh ways of accomplishing old tasks. They also open up entirely new possibilities, both scientific and religious. Therefore, a few words on the religious goals of The Question Factory are in order here.[3]

Beginning perhaps a half century ago, an entirely new approach to the fundamentally religious problem of immortality began to emerge, leading to considerable discussion today and the beginnings of practical accomplishments. In 1953, science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke imagined that human immortality might be achieved technologically through the creation of a vast computer which could store the information needed to re-create a society, including all of its members.[4] The theme of cybernetic immortality has continued to fascinate science fiction writers, and it plays a central role in the Neuromancer series of novels by William Gibson, which also originated the concept of cyberspace.[5] The influential television series Babylon 5 frequently dramatized similar ideas, notably in the episodes "Soul Hunter" and "River of Souls." But just as the science fiction idea of space travel has become reality, and Clarke's original concept of communication satellites has become a standard part of the world's infrastructure, technological immortality has recently become a topic of serious research and debate.

In his widely-read book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, Ray Kurzweil (1999) argues that the combination of brain scanning, neural implants, nanotechnology, and supercomputing will achieve the union of humans and machines within twenty or thirty years, leading to the transformation of humanity into a species no longer limited by mortal bodies.[6] Kurzweil gains some credibility for his ideas from the fact that he is a highly successful pioneer in the practical fields of computer recognition of spoken language and computer-generated speech.

Already today, work has begun on some of the ancillary technologies that will be required to achieve cybernetic immortality. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have jointly launched the "InterPlaNetary Internet" (IPN) initiative to work out the top level architecture to give interplanetary scope to Internet and thus to the cybernetic noosphere.[7] Movie producer Steven Spielberg has established the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which videotaped interviews with 50,000 Holocaust victims to be preserved in an advanced, hypermedia information system.[8] The Informedia digital library at Carnegie Mellon University has been developing a system called "Experience on Demand," with the goal of achieving a "complete, searchable record of personal memory and experience."[9] Among the many small social movements oriented toward these ideas, especially notable is the Transhumanist Movement, a web-based network of intellectuals who are developing new conceptions of human society commensurate with the technological potentials.[10]

Skepticism about these possibilities can be rooted either in an awareness of the technical challenges that lie ahead or in commitment to the very different images of the human soul and of immortality offered by traditional religions. Thus it is worth noting that new religious movements have begun to arise that seek to spiritualize technology. For example, the Raelian Movement is promoting the religious benefits of biological cloning technologies. The first really successful religious movement related to computing is probably Scientology. L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, spoke of the human mind as a perfect computer in his first Dianetics book, and he explained the spiritual technology he called clearing in terms of clearing false data from memory registers.[11] To accelerate clearing processes, Scientology developed the electronic e-meter, and recent models are capable of downloading their data into computers.[12]

In the mid-1980s, I experimented with adding circuitry to an e-meter that would transmit the spiritual data into a computer for analysis and long-term storage. A fully functioning system was demonstrated to a Harvard University colloquium at which a representative of the Church of Scientology was present. Subsequent demonstration to an editor at Wadsworth publishing company led to my publishing a series of textbook-software packages that were designed both to teach conventional social science and develop spiritual computing techniques. Some of these projects explored psychological and sociological methods for capturing aspects of a person's mind,[13] and others employed computerized neural networks for modeling religious faith.[14]

The Question Factory was the next logical step in this project, designed to assemble a corpus of more than 10,000 questionnaire items that would be incorporated in computer software designed to measure and record an individual's attitudes, beliefs and personality. But it is certainly not necessary to share the religious motives behind the work to benefit from the methodological developments or research findings. The example of a survey on beliefs about the afterlife will illustrate the utility of web-based informant ethnography.

Web-Based Afterlife Surveys

A good example of the methodology is a qualitative Death questionnaire and the quantitative Afterlife questionnaire that was one of its results. First, a brief survey was placed on the Web including several open-ended items that asked people to express their beliefs about death and the afterlife. For example, three of these items were: "What do you BELIEVE will happen to you personally, after you die? What do you HOPE will happen to you personally, after you die? What do you FEAR will happen to you personally, after you die?" The respondent was given a space on the electronic form to write a response to each of these items, as long or short as he or she wished.

A total of 131 people responded to these 10 items, producing about 1,300 statements about death and the afterlife. Following grounded theory methods,[15] 270 distinct ideas were culled from this mass of material, writing them as phrases based as much as possible on the verbatim language of the respondents. A third of these phrases became a new 90-item fixed-choice survey on the afterlife, posted on the Question Factory website, asking people to rate each item on a 7-point scale: "How likely do you think it is that this will happen to you after you die?" Table 1 shows some results of an exploratory factor analysis of data from the first 198 respondents, employing varimax rotation and assigning each item to the factor on which it was most strongly loaded.

Table 1: Factor Analysis of Afterlife Beliefs

Factor Items Label Most Strongly Loaded Items
I 33 Heaven Spend eternity with God. (0.89)
Not experience anything, because there is no afterlife and death is final. (-0.85)
II 16 Hell Enter a terrible place filled with never-ending fear, pain, torment, hate, anger, cruelty, and sadness. (0.94)
III 12 Reincarnation Be reborn into a new child or animal. (0.89)
IV 8 Powerlessness Feel unendurable boredom, lacking challenges and creativity. (0.66)
V 3 Paradise I See a beautiful sunset. (0.74)
VI 3 Paradise II See many white clouds with little angels playing trumpets. (0.76)
VII 3 Oblivion Just sleep forever. (0.50)
IX 3 Ascended Masters Teach others about the plan, in a spirit world. (0.66)
X 2 Wish Fulfillment Find a happy place where you may be whatever you want, go wherever you want, and have anything you want. (0.62)
XI 2 Grave Be buried in the cold hard ground. (0.76)

Table 1 quotes the most highly loaded item collected by each of the eleven meaningful factors, and each factor has a label that roughly communicates its general sense. The first factor was extremely powerful, collecting 33 items, more than a third of the total. Nine items, loaded from 0.89 to 0.80, clearly represent the Christian image of Heaven: "Spend eternity with God. Praise and worship God for all eternity. Be filled with awe and thankfulness at the goodness and mercy of God. Stand before your God and account for the life you led on Earth. Give and receive pure love. Relax in a perfect place with no crime, no violence, no war, just peace. Become pure and untouched by sin. Grow in spiritual understanding. Hear the voice of God say, Well done, my good and faithful servant." Another twenty items loaded from 0.75 down to 0.40 describe Heaven in greater detail, and four items that loaded strongly negatively (from -0.85 to -0.58) express disbelief in the Christian afterlife: "Not experience anything, because there is no afterlife and death is final. Cease to exist, never thinking or feeling again. Feel nothing, and you will not even know that you are dead. Cease to exist except for the memories of you that remain in the hearts and minds of those who knew you and continue to live on Earth."

Focusing on Factor III, "Reincarnation," will illustrate how these methods can create new measurement scales for use in future questionnaires. Table 2 lists the twelve items loaded above 0.40 on this factor and which were more strongly loaded on this factor than on any other. Each of these dozen items was based on one or more written responses to the open-ended items in the web-based Death questionnaire. They were among the 90 fixed-choice items in the Afterlife questionnaire, and they are grouped into this factor by statistical analysis of responses to that second web-based survey. Thus, in this process qualitative ethnography blends into quantitative ethnography.

Table 2: The Reincarnation Factor

Loading Item
0.89 Be reborn into a new child or animal.
0.86 Go through a series of many lives, eventually reaching Nirvana.
0.84 Be reincarnated in a form that you deserve, as a result of your behavior in this life.
0.81 Have another opportunity to choose a situation to be born into that will allow you to learn lessons you need to learn.
0.70 Exist as a spirit on the earth, inhabiting an animal, tree, or other part of nature.
0.66 Be reborn near the family you love so dearly in this lifetime.
0.59 Move on to the next realm of existence to learn the lessons you did not learn on earth.
0.59 Return to earth as a spirit guardian to guide people along the right path.
0.52 Become part of a huge network of energy connecting each dead person to all the other entities, making a vast web that encompasses the whole universe.
0.44 Feel free from individual ego identification and completely unified with all other forms of energy.
0.44 Stay on Earth for a while after the funeral, visiting loved ones to comfort them.
0.44 Have the same feelings you had before you were born.

Examination of Table 2 suggests that a narrowly-focused "reincarnation" scale could be created out of the first six items, all loaded about 0.65. In fact, a measurement scale calculated simply by adding the scores from these six items together is highly reliable, achieving a Cronbach's alpha of 0.91. Generally speaking, an alpha of 0.70 is considered quite good, and this scale surpasses that criterion by a wide margin. An index composed of all 12 items obviously covers a broader conceptual territory than just reincarnation, but with twice as many items it also achieves an alpha of 0.91. Therefore, if one were creating a new questionnaire, one could employ either six or twelve of the items as a reliable measure either of reincarnation beliefs or of the wider cultural orientation in which they are embedded.

Clearly, the results of this pilot study of afterlife beliefs demonstrate that Web-based administration of qualitative and quantitative questionnaires can be used to create measurement scales for inclusion in scientific surveys, and each factor is the beginning of such a scale. Another example illustrates how this process can be use to develop religion-related items in the context of a broader study of people's views of the future.

The Future of Religion

One of the qualitative ethnographic surveys posted on The Question Factory concerned people's view about the future, including an open-ended item about possible religious events in the year 2000, several questions about the ethics of human cloning, plus some standard survey items categorizing the respondent's religious affiliation. Results indicated that the following open-ended item functioned well: "Imagine the future and try to predict how the world will change over the next century. Think about everyday life as well as major changes in society, culture, and technology." This item was then placed in Survey 2000, a complex web-based questionnaire sponsored by the National Geographic Society and designed by a team led by James Witte.[16]

Most of the 46,000 adult and 13,000 child respondents were recruited through advertisements in National Geographic publications and on the Society's popular website, but some were school children doing the survey in connection with Geography Awareness Week. There were many items on migration and regional culture, musical preferences, book reading, and the kinds of foods people in different regions like. About half of the adults who responded to the survey wrote in at least one idea about the future, from one sentence to as much as several paragraphs. The entire 15 megabytes of their responses was read through, and nearly 5,000 somewhat distinctive ideas were identified. The 5,000 were collated and edited down to a final 2,000 future-oriented ideas that were then incorporated in a Windows-based software module called The Year 2100, which then was placed on the website for anyone who wanted it to download.

The software asks the user to evaluate each idea in terms of two dimensions: 1) How GOOD versus BAD such a future would be, and 2) How LIKELY versus UNLIKELY it is that the idea will come true. The module measures the user's optimism versus pessimism in twenty areas of life, plus the user's priorities and values concerning the future. The software not only does the necessary statistical analysis but also produces word processing files collecting ideas the user rated in a similar way. For example, the user's personal Utopia consists of those ideas rated both very good and very unlikely. The Year 2100 is a tool for self-analysis of goals, needs, and general personality, as well as part of a system for recording an individual for later technological resurrection.

One of the twenty areas of life was religion, and the software module thus contains 100 items about the possible future of faith. To illustrate, here are the three religion items that the first research subject to use the software module judged were most like to come true over the following century: "A major new religion will emerge, based on Pentecostal or Evangelical principles. Religious groups, including Islam and Christianity, will oppose dominance by American materialist culture. The spiritual deadness affecting prosperous societies will lead to a proliferation of strange cults and fanatic religious movements."

Naturally, other respondents would select a different group of items for their personal predictions of the future. The first research subject considered the following items to be especially unlikely to come true: "Angels will influence people's lives. God will wipe every tear from the eyes of believers, and they will see death no more. All good people who have died in the past 6,000 years will be resurrected and live forever on God's clean and beautiful Earth. Jesus Christ will return to Earth. Those who do not accept Jesus as their savior will perish in a time of terrible tribulation. God will rule over the Earth, destroy wickedness, and bring perfection to mankind. People will be living in an Earth-wide paradise, after God destroys all the wicked during the battle of Armageddon. God will bring an end to war, famine, and disease." Most of these items reflect a millenarian perspective, rejected by this respondent but reflecting the views of many other people. All we would need to create a millenarian measurement scale would be responses from a sufficient number of other respondents to identify which subset of items achieves a desirable level of statistical reliability.

Table 3 provides an overview of responses from two test subjects, "WSB," a 59 year old male, and "WAB," a 12 year old female, highlighting the religion category. The table covers half of the items, 1,000 statements arranged in 10 equal groups of 100. On average, the two research subjects gave almost identical "good" ratings, 4.64 and 4.68 on the 1 to 8 scale. The difference was also narrow for the group of 100 religion items, 4.51 versus 4.46. But across all ten groups they differed by an average of 0.37. Their average ratings on the "likely" scale were more different, 4.92 versus 4.49. This is a difference of 0.43, but the average difference across the ten groups is 0.59. Of course, the two respondents differ in their ratings of most of the 2,000 specific judgements (1,000 stimuli times 2 responses each).

Table 3: Comparison of Two Respondents (WSB and WAB) to The Year 2100

Category Mean GOOD Rating Mean LIKELY Rating Optimism (r)
Art-entertainment 4.48 4.99 5.20 4.65  0.40  0.28
Business-economic 4.23 3.64 4.90 4.45  0.46  0.21
Domestic-food-urban 4.83 5.32 5.15 4.64  0.54  0.28
Education 4.48 4.76 4.98 4.44  0.26  0.13
Family 4.27 4.12 4.91 4.38  0.10 -0.03
Miscellaneous 4.51 4.85 5.07 4.23  0.51 -0.02
Outer space 6.13 5.99 4.74 5.55 -0.36  0.03
Population 4.20 3.54 4.90 4.63 -0.14  0.00
Religion 4.51 4.46 4.53 3.43  0.61 -0.04
Technology-transport 4.72 5.16 4.82 4.48  0.52  0.31
AVERAGE of 10 4.64 4.68 4.92 4.49  0.29  0.12

Because the 100 religion items were in the same format as hundreds of items about other topics, and because the items were all drawn by the same process from the same ethnographic survey, we can compare the ranking of religion with those of other categories. On average, the first respondent rated religion items as less good than just three of the other nine groups (outer space, technology-transport, and domestic-food-urban) and tied with the group of 100 miscellaneous items. The second respondent rated religion lower, in seventh rank out of ten.

The last two columns in Table 3 show the average "optimism" or "pessimism" scores of the two respondents. Optimism is measured by the correlation between the "good" and "likely" ratings. That is, if a person tends to feel that good ideas about the future are likely to come true -- and bad ideas are unlikely to come true -- there will be a positive correlation between the two ratings. Conversely, if the respondent feels that bad things are likely to happen in the future, there will be a negative correlation between "good" and "likely." For example, in the religious area the first test subject is very optimistic (0.62), but he is significantly pessimistic about the future of the space program (-0.36). Also, he shows much wider swings of optimism or pessimism across the ten topic areas, compared with the second test subject. Notably, the second test subject shows no correlation between rating religious items "good" and "likely." The average difference between the optimism scores of the two subjects, across the ten areas, is 0.28.

If one had responses from many research subjects, it would be possible to develop a large number of subscales from the 2,000 items in The Year 2100, and employ them in future scientific studies. But as the original goal of the software was to archive aspects of a personality, it is important to note that the software can give meaningful statistical results from a single subject, such as the optimism correlations for the full list of 20 topic areas.


1. Christie, R., & Geis, F. L. (1970). Studies in Machiavellianism. New York: Academic Press.

2. Question Factory:

3. Cf. Bainbridge, W. S. (1993). New Religions, Science and Secularization. In Bromley, D.G., & Hadden, J. K. (Eds.). Religion and the Social Order (pp. 277-292). Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI.

4. Clarke, A. C. (1953). The City and the Stars. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

5. William Gibson (1984). Neuromancer. New York : Ace Books, c1984.

6. Kurzweil, R. (1999). The Age of Spiritual Machines. New York: Penguin.

7. Teilhard de Chardin, P. (1964). The Future of Man. New York: Harper. See also: Interplanetary Internet: and Noosphere:

8. Shoah Visual History Foundation:

9. Experience on Demand:

10. Transhumanist Movement:

11. Hubbard, L. R. (1950). Dianetics, the Modern Science of Mental Health. New York: Paperback Library.

12. Hubbard, L. R. (1967). E-Meter Essentials 1961. Edinburgh, Scotland: Publications Organization World Wide; (1968). The Book Introducing the E-Meter. Edinburgh, Scotland: Publications Organization World Wide.

13. Bainbridge, W. S. (1986). Experiments in Psychology. Belmont, California: Wadsworth; (1989). Survey Research: A Computer-Assisted Introduction. Belmont, California: Wadsworth.

14. Bainbridge, W. S. (1987). Sociology Laboratory. Belmont, California: Wadsworth; (1995). Neural Network Models of Religious Belief, Sociological Perspectives, 38, 483-495.

15. Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Chicago: Aldine; Bainbridge, W. S. (1991). Goals in Space. Albany, New York: SUNY Press.

16. Witte, J. C., Amoroso, L. M., & Howard, P. E. N. (2000). Research Methodology: Method and Representation in Internet-Based Survey Tools. Social Science Computer Review, 18, 179-195.