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College of Human Development, Culture, and Media

New Book Takes an Insightful Journey Into Online Religious Communities

Book Cover

Book cover of 'Keeping Women in Their Digital Place: The Maintenance of Jewish Gender Norms Online.'

In a world where digital interactions have become a cornerstone of daily life, the new book Keeping Women in Their Digital Place: The Maintenance of Jewish Gender Norms Online (2024, Penn State University Press) by Ruth Tsuria, Ph.D., explores how Orthodox Jewish communities navigate the complexities of the internet. The book delves into the unique phenomenon of "digital enclaves," online spaces where religious norms and gender identities are constantly renegotiated. Tsuria's inspiration for the book stems from her own experiences growing up with the internet. "This book is inspired by my personal experiences, thinking about how the internet shaped my religious identity as well as the society around me," she shares. "I open the book with memories of preparing for my bat-Mitzvah, weaving my personal story into the broader narrative."

The research for Tsuria's book spans nearly eight years, involving extensive immersion in various online forums, social media sites and blogs. "I used in-depth discursive analysis to make sense of the data," she explains. Her journey was filled with surprises. "I was struck by the number of taboo issues discussed in these religious spaces. Topics like sexuality, motherhood and religious disappointments were openly talked about, revealing a clear need for more 'open' spaces within religious communities."

Another unexpected discovery was the extent of peer-regulation online. "Instead of relying on rabbis for guidance, people were constantly correcting, shaming and advising each other. This peer-regulation underscores the power of digital communication to normalize behavior," Tsuria notes.

Tsuria's insights extend to broader discussions about digital literacy and the management of online spaces. "In the book, I discuss the relationship between media platforms and offline concepts, the power of online peer-regulation, and how digital media is used to negotiate and resist traditional norms. I hope these insights inspire others to engage critically with digital media as a communicative social space."

Ruth Tsuria, Ph.D.

Ruth Tsuria, Ph.D.

As an associate professor and director of graduate studies in the College of Human Development, Culture, and Media, Tsuria describes her role as being both a mentor and a teacher, and loves seeing students overcome challenges to achieve things they never imagined they could do. She also enjoys observing them as they discover their passions and find new ways of thinking through the course study. "I share my research processes, struggles and successes with my students. This real-life experience helps them see the significant impact research can have on society," she says.

Since the way people communicate is changing all the time thanks to the advent of social media and other technologies, Tsuria constantly updates her courses using the latest research and what she learns at academic conferences. 

Her work has also fostered global scholarly connections, such as hosting Lina Rodenhausen, a doctoral candidate at the Center for Religious Studies at Ruhr-Universität Bochum who was inspired by Tsuria’s research. "She shared her own research, "Exploring the Nexus of Polarization, Religion, and Social Media," and conducted a workshop for our graduate students, which received very positive feedback." The event was co-hosted by the College’s Institute for Communication and Religion, which Tsuria partners with frequently based on her research area.

Tsuria has been interested in and working with this area of research since she noted the deep-rooted impact of religion on society and how this impact is often downplayed in research. She was able to explore this topic in her B.A. program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and more deeply in her M.A. program at Copenhagen University. She was then able to further work with leading researchers in Digital Religion during her Ph.D. program at Texas A&M University. 

She was named the recipient of the 2019 Digital Religion Research Award by the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies at Texas A&M, and received the Emerging Scholar Award from the Religion in Society Research Network in 2018. She served as co-editor of Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in Digital Media and Media and Power in International Contexts: Perspectives on Agency and Identity.

Looking ahead, Tsuria is shifting her focus to the intersection of AI and religion. "I've just published on this topic and am now working on an edited book," she revealed. For scholars and students interested in the interplay of religion, gender, and digital media, her advice is simple: "Follow your passion. There are many important elements to uncover, so don't be afraid to explore less-charted areas."

Categories: Arts and Culture