Human Subjects Research: Lessons about Interreligious Relations beyond the Research Thesis


  • Describe a successful classroom teaching tactic that could be replicated by other instructors.

The context: I supervise research projects at two Christian seminaries and chair the human subjects research committee at one of them. Students must obtain committee approval to conduct field research on individuals or organizations.

The pedagogical purpose: My special interest is helping Christian seminarians become more responsible and sensitive participants in interreligious relations. The approval process requires students to exhibit awareness of best practices in research, which are also applicable to interreligious relations. No matter what research thesis a student is pursuing, valuable lessons about interreligious relations occur in a structured manner during the approval process and often serendipitously during the field research. Human subjects research offers Christian seminarians the opportunity to develop attitudes, virtues, and methods that will enhance interreligious relations.

Description of the strategy: In a typical project – researching ritual practices at a local Buddhist temple – the committee guides the student preparing an organization consent form, insuring that the proper authority grants permission to conduct the research and that the temple can decline if it feels taxed by the number of researchers it has already accommodated, or is simply uninterested. The student also prepares an individual consent form that protects interviewees from harm, provides them the opportunity to give fully informed consent to be interviewed, and offers a means to obtain a report on how research data have been used.

The faculty advisor for the project debriefs the student's unexpected field experiences. What happened when you unintentionally sat down in a space reserved for a Buddhist ritual specialist? Did this gaffe elicit confession on your part and forgiveness from your host? How did you respond to the challenge, “You can't understand Buddhist meditation if you've never meditated”? Did this lead to constructive introspection and dialogue, or to defensiveness and disputation?

Why it is effective: Interreligious lessons learned “off task” can be significant and long-lasting. Far from being an annoyance or even an obstacle to research, human subjects protocols hold student researchers accountable going into the field. The virtues of respect and reciprocity are modeled in the consent forms. Faculty supervisors can monitor student awareness of the serendipitous lessons offered by field research.