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Listening faithfully with Friends: An ethnography of Quaker communication practices

Elizabeth Molina-Markham, University of Massachusetts Amherst


One of the most basic human questions is whether there is a divine presence with which we can interact, and, if so, how do we communicate with this presence and how should the results of our communication be manifest in our lives? This study is an exploration of how one community has sought to answer these questions in their practices. The researcher adopts an ethnography of communication perspective, informed by cultural discourse analysis, cultural communication, speech codes theory, and the coordinated management of meaning, to explore the communicative practices of members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in the United States, with a focus on the practices of participants at a meeting of unprogrammed, liberal Friends. This research seeks to answer questions about these Friends’ practices in their meeting activities, including: When are the phrases “gathered” meeting, “corporate discernment” or “spiritual journey” used by Quakers? What are the forms of communication identified with these terms? and Are there deep cultural meanings about communication, sociality, and personhood active in communication about or during these practices? Data are drawn from approximately a year and a half of participation in the meeting community and include field notes on participation in meetings for worship, articles in a Quaker publication, and recordings of meetings for business, of interviews, and of Friends telling their “spiritual journeys.” This work seeks to contribute to scholarship on cultural communication, religious communication, decision making, silence, narrative, and identity and suggests comparisons with the practices of other religious traditions. Most importantly, it attempts to provide a descriptive and interpretive account of how it is that Quakers understand communication with a spiritual presence to be fundamentally based in expectant group silence, understood as listening together, which in turn is the foundation for the process through which they reach agreement in meetings for business on corporate social action. Findings include the identification of distinctive characteristics of “gathered” meetings for worship, the description of elements of a Quaker style of speaking, and the formulation of a Quaker code of communication, including cultural premises of value and norms for acting in the community.

Subject Area

Religion|Communication|Spirituality|Social structure

Recommended Citation

Molina-Markham, Elizabeth, "Listening faithfully with Friends: An ethnography of Quaker communication practices" (2011). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3465056.