DEI Surveys & The Religion Question: Dr. J.T. Snipes in Conversation

by | Jul 29, 2022 | Climate Surveys, Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, Higher Education, Survey Research

Dr. J.T. Snipes and SoundRocket collaborated on the revision of a religious identity question, which will be part of our national benchmark DEI survey. In this conversation with Dr. Joshua Patterson of SoundRocket, Dr. Snipes discusses his research background and expertise in religious, secular and spiritual identities – and details the careful process of formulating survey questionnaires on such deeply personal topics.
Dr. Joshua Patterson:

Hi, J.T., and thanks for talking to me today! We’re here to talk about the revision of a religious identity question that you did for SoundRocket, that’s going to be a part of our national benchmark DEI survey. We’ve already incorporated into our base survey that goes out to every campus. So far, we’ve gotten really good feedback on it. So we’re just going to talk a little bit about it today and about your process so that we can share the word about the work that we did. 

Before we get into that, would you share briefly about your research background? Specifically, how did you come to the expertise that you have on religious, secular and spiritual identities in higher education? 

Dr. J.T. Snipes:

Well, Josh, thank you for the opportunity, first and foremost. I tread lightly around titles like ‘expert,’ because there’s so little that we know collectively, in higher education around these (I would argue) critical issues, particularly when we are trying to quantify particular facets of identity. I think there is such limited scholarship in this area that I always tread lightly around being identified as an expert. But my background: I got my PhD from Indiana University’s higher education program, and I have worked extensively with the Ideals Project, which was a mixed-methods study on religious, secular and spiritual identities in higher education that centered interfaith at the core. And working with Drs. Rockenbach, Mayhew, and others, really gave me a unique opportunity to think critically about both the quantification and description of religion and spirituality in higher ed.  My dissertation research focus sat at the intersections of race and religious identity, particularly non-religious, non-theistic black folks, and how they come to understand their identity. 

So my work, for the past few years, has really been trying to grapple with, what do these identity categories mean? And how can we better define them, both in terms of race (because there’s some really interesting work that’s emerging in how we think not just solely about race) and ethnicity – and how do we quantify those identity categories? 

I think there’s some overlap when we think about religion as well. How do we capture the diversity that is present? So there’s a tension in my mind – balancing both specificity and feasibility and practicality, or instrumentation. So, I don’t know if that answers the expertise question as much as it takes you through where my mind goes when thinking about, particularly, quantification of identity.

Patterson: That’s perfect, thank you. So, why is it important to you to have quality quantitative data on a topic like religious, secular and spiritual identities (RSSI)? 

Snipes: I think so much of the data that that has been collected reifies inequity, and honestly doesn’t measure well. For me, it’s important, particularly with quantitative data that is going to be used to generalize and predict that’s at the core of it – we want to be able to understand the relationship between variables. And the best quantitative data allows us to make reliable predictions about particular groups. 

I want to make sure that if we say we’re measuring orange,  we’re not measuring purple. So the goal, for me, is accuracy. And if we are measuring orange, can we really get down to the specific hex code that matches that color, across platforms and across machines or computers? So that when we are talking about cerulean, we’re always talking about cerulean – not a dark blue, or a blue green, right? And I think – because of how quantitative data has advanced – I feel like we are getting closer to naming the thing, ‘the thing,’ for lack of a better word. 

Accuracy has real implications, especially in a university setting – where so many institutions are moving to data-driven decision-making. If we’re going to make decisions about particular populations, we need to be sure that we’ve identified the population correctly.

Because the implications – particularly in what I would argue is a neoliberal environment in higher education – can do real harm to groups that have low “n” or aren’t represented numerically in a way that institutions are willing to give resources for. So getting it right and naming the thing is critical to me.

Patterson: Why is it so important, in particular, to have that quality data in the context of RSSI?

Snipes: Because – if I may be frank right now – I feel like the data that we collect is often rooted in Christian supremacy and Christian hegemony. And if we are going to properly capture the data of the religious diversity that is present within our society in different institutions, we have to be clear about what it is that we’re capturing. Particularly when we look at religion, I think there’s an opportunity for folks who occupy different religious, spiritual or secular identities to take an off-ramp out of a survey, right? We often think about surveys as impersonal and objective, but there is a relationship component to it. The language that we use communicates specific things to specific populations, and how does our language align with how communities see themselves and how they articulate their own identities. So if we want to truly capture the populations that we’re interested in knowing more about, we have to use language that mirrors theirs – and we have to sequence things in a way that doesn’t feel micro-aggressive, or reinforce the Christian hegemony and supremacy that is already present in our society.

Patterson: That makes sense, thank you. So what’s something that you think a lot of people still get wrong when it comes to demographic data on religious secular and spiritual identity? Or maybe misconceptions or misapprehensions?

Snipes: I think the idea that as long as we list everyone, if we have an exhaustive list, then we’ve done our duty, right?  In my mind, there’s a tension between several things; like, who is our audience? And I think we need to be really intentional about asking those sorts of questions. As someone who positions themselves in favor of, or interested in, critical quantitative work, there is a larger context in which data is being collected. So one size never fits all. And I think we need to ask ourselves questions about the context in which data is going to be collected and tailor our instruments to reflect the context in which it’s going to be distributed. 

So, I’ll give you a practical example. For me, the context for my research is higher education, and particularly at a regional comprehensive university. And there is a particular demographic of students that is going to be engaging in the instrument. How does my instrument speak to the imagined positionality of folks that are engaging in the instrument? Does it resonate? Because if it does, there is a higher likelihood  that our completion rates will go up. And I’m always thinking about their likelihood to respond, who’s responding, what exactly have we captured. And what we have historically captured is overwhelmingly the voices of Christian participants. And again, that’s a broad spectrum; we could be more specific in what we mean by Christian, but in general, that disproportionately weighs their voices.

Patterson: You’ve touched on some of these already, so don’t feel don’t feel like you have to rehash anything. But the next question is, what do you think are the biggest obstacles to collecting good data on religious, secular and spiritual identities? Are there other obstacles you’d like to mention?

Snipes: So context, to me, is really big. Where are we positioned? It’s often about the objectification of the instrument itself; are the words correct? Some people are thinking about, for instance, if group x or group y should distribute the survey – and the reasons why. Hiring a third party to come in and administer a survey gives an air of objectivity. Something is lost, at times, or something can be lost when a third party group distributes the survey – in terms of trust, and we’re talking about marginalized communities. So thinking about, specifically, who’s administering the instrument, who all had a hand in the creation process.  For me, again, it’s the critical question around instrument construction, distribution, and analysis. You want to strive to make your instrument as inclusive as possible when it relates to religion and spirituality –  particularly if you hope to have these marginalized populations in your sample. 

I want to re-emphasize that it matters who is participating in, particularly, the analysis process. Because if, as an organization, you’re making decisions based on the data that you’ve collected – again, we’re all situated in a particular context. We have to consider: how does our context come to bear in the interpretation of the data? And how are we making sure that multiple voices have access to, and can speak into, their representation within the instrument?

Patterson: I think that kind of bridges into the next question, which, again, is an idea that we’ve touched on – this idea of tension. It’s true for questions about religious, secular and spiritual identity, in the same way that it’s true about a lot of other demographic questions in that there’s this constant tension between specificity and feasibility. Like data structure, the ability to track something over time, to merge different datasets, and to be able to nest variables –  all that sort of quantitative stuff that a lot of people maybe don’t think about or value in the same way. There’s a tension between that and the experience of the survey participant, where the priority is for a person to be able to easily find an option or a response that resonates with them, that they can choose with confidence that this is the particular label under this heading that describes me best. 

What do you think about that, generally? And how do you think about that in the context of this very specific question that we worked on together?

Snipes: I mean, I think you’ve named it well. I often think about the end user experience. So if I identify as Muslim, how long does it take for me to find the identity category? Under religion, specifically? Is it  burdensome to get to the response that I feel, as the survey participant, best reflects my own identity? So that’s the main question that I’m grappling with as I’m constructing the instrument. What does it mean to each of these populations as they engage? And viewing it as an opportunity to build rapport through the instrument. 

As a qualitative researcher, historically, rapport is critical. And I don’t know how often we think about building rapport in the survey instrument, really thinking about the instrument as an extension of our own humanity. How do I show up, in this instrument, in a way that welcomes or invites other folks to engage and continue engaging? 

Patterson: This tension, obviously, was present in the very specific work that we did together, which was to revise the way that we asked about these identity components in surveys. 

Snipes: I think the biggest issue in my mind was – globally,   there are some estimates that there are over 4000 different religions. So as someone who is interested in social justice, and equitable representation of religious minorities, religiously minoritized populations – I want all of those populations represented in the instrument. But when we begin to think about it practically, the greater likelihood is that everyone is alienated by having to scroll through 4000 options, right? So the task for me becomes, how do we take something as infinitely complex as religious identity and categorize it into a single marker of identity? Religion is infinitely complex, and we’re asking for a single marker of that identity. But I think because of socialization within society, we’re able to do that with some accuracy and fidelity… but I don’t want to let that go, that complexity. So that’s the other thing that I’m holding. It is always and already beyond what I’ve classified this thing to be. And I don’t ever – as a researcher, I don’t ever want to forget that. 

Because on the other end of the surveys is a human being who can be validated, supported. That’s what drives my work in this project. Am I representing, to the best of my ability, the folks that are going to be taking this instrument, and have I crafted it in a way that I’m not further alienating folks who are already on the margins of religious, secular or spiritual identities? 

Alienation is inevitable. So I will own that, I think, given the constraints of what we’re seeking to do. But my hope is that we can continue to make alienation less. Someone is going to be further marginalized by this instrument. How can I lessen the impact of that marginalization? 

One way that I’ve done it, practically, is giving participants an opportunity to self-define.  So we talked about the open response or open-ended item where folks can write in their religious identity; I think that’s a practice of liberation for quantitative work. It lessens the slight of rolling down a list and not seeing yourself represented. 

Patterson: Gotcha, thanks for sharing that. I like to close conversations with some form of this question – anytime I do an interview like this -because I think it can be really revelatory. And that is: if you were in charge of everything for a day – so if you had, you know, a magic crown or a magic hat or magic wand – and you could change one thing about the way that data is collected on religious, spiritual and secular identities… what would you start with, what would be the first thing you’d change?

Snipes: I don’t think I would make a revelatory change to the end product, per se. I think it would be in folks’ mindsets in approaching data collection in general. For folks to be clear -both to participants and themselves – about the purposes of data collection. I think I want people to be clearer about the context. So, who are you in this, organizationally? What does your organization represent? So, if you’re the federal government, what does it mean for you to be distributing an instrument? Where are areas and communities of trust, areas and communities of distrust that this instrument is going into, and what sort of addendums are you willing to make to the instrument so that it speaks to those populations that have felt marginalized or are marginalized by your instrumentation? 

So, for me, it would be clarity about who they are and the work that they’re doing – or who they’ve entrusted the work to. So if folks are hiring SoundRocket, what does that mean for the distribution of the instrument? And what sense do folks make of this third party? How does that affect both the collection and interpretation of data? 

Patterson: Awesome. Well, those are the questions that I had. But I want to give you an opportunity to circle back to anything, do you have anything you want to add?

Snipes: I do want to honor the folks whose work influences my own thinking. And specifically, I want to name Sachi Edwards and Lisa Davidson – collaborators, peers, and scholars that, quite frankly, I look up to, and who have really shaped my approach to quantitative work and survey instrumentation. I mentioned Matt Mayhew and Alyssa Rockenbach earlier, their work has also been critical in providing academic space for me to study the things that I study. And to D-L Stewart, whose research in the past couple of years moved away from religion and spirituality, but whose work in particular has been critical in shaping how I understand the field. So, roll call to Sachi Edwards, Lisa Davidson, Alyssa Rockenbach, Matt Mayhew, D-L Stewart – check out these folks’ work. 

J.T. Snipes, Ph.D.

Dr. Snipes teaches courses in qualitative research methods, foundations, and diversity classes in the College Student Personnel Administration program at Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville. He joined the faculty in 2018 after obtaining his Ph.D. in Higher Education from Indiana University.  

Dr. Snipes’ research interest focuses on religion and spirituality in higher education, African American collegiate students, and critical race theory in education.  He recently completed his award-winning dissertation entitled, “Ain’t I Black too: Counterstories of Black Atheist in College.”  It explores the narratives of secular African American students in college. His latest edited volume Remixed and Reimagined: Innovations in Religion, Spirituality, and (Inter)Faith in Higher Education invites readers to rethink religious scholarship and practice in higher education and student affairs. 

Joshua Patterson, Ph.D.

Dr. Patterson works as Research Director for Higher Education Studies at SoundRocket. In this role, Patterson leads SoundRocket’s work to support social science researchers and campus practitioners investigating topics in higher education. These include explorations of leadership, mental health, equity and inclusion, sexual misconduct, and other aspects of campus climate for students and employees. Prior to this appointment, he had served as a research fellow and consultant to the American Academy of Religion. Patterson’s own research focuses on student experiences and organizational decision-making in higher education, and combines myriad research designs and approaches to explore these topics and communicate key findings.

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