The Varieties of Religious Significance: An Idiographic Approach to Study Religion's Role in Adolescent Development

From Section:
Informal Education
Jun. 02, 2019
June, 2019

Source: Journal of Research on Adolescence, 29(2), 291–307


We present a rationale and method for taking an idiographic approach to study the role religion plays in adolescent development. We theorize that adolescents harness qualitatively different aspects of religion to address idiosyncratic developmental needs. Therefore, analyzing religion's role in adolescent development necessitates a case‐by‐case holistic analysis. We introduce a systematic method using narratives to identify the personal ways that individuals attribute meaning in general and regarding religion in particular. We present three detailed case studies from a sample of 20 religious Israeli Jewish Orthodox emerging‐adult women who provided retrospective narrative accounts of their general and religious development through adolescence. Systematic analysis reveals that religion was significant to these women in diverse and personal ways, addressing markedly different adolescent developmental needs.

The Purpose of the Present Study

The purpose of the study was to test out the feasibility and utility of our general framework in a study of the role of religion in the process of adolescing. Three main objectives guided us:

(1) Can the suggested indicators assist in extracting an internally consistent and coherent picture of the personal meaning of religion from narrative accounts?

(2) Is religion idiosyncratically meaningful, in the sense that different respondents indeed attach significantly different meanings to religion, in a way consistent with their broader identity and meaning-making systems?

(3) Can this approach add insight into religion’s psychological role vis-a -vis adolescents’ transition toward adulthood?

To answer these questions, we collected life stories focused on retrospective accounts of general and religious development from 20 emerging adults, and analyzed them holistically case-by-case in order to understand individual general developmental challenges of adolescence and the possible particular role religion played in addressing these challenges.


Our sample consisted of 20 emerging-adult (ages 22–29) Israeli Jewish Orthodox religious women from the national-religious (“Dati-Leumi”) sector in Israel. The women were alumni of Israeli religious public schools and self-identified as religious. They were recruited answering a notice calling for volunteers for whom religious issues were significant during adolescence. We chose a homogeneous sample deliberately in order to demonstrate interindividual differences in meaning within a group. Such a sample allows us to attribute observed differences to personal rather than group characteristics. Marked differences within a homogeneous group more readily demonstrate that meanings are personalized.

All 20 women were interviewed by the second author using a Thematic Life Story Interview (Hadad & Schachter, 2011; Schachter, 2004; Schwab, 2013). Interviewees are asked to narrate their life story in general while also relating, along the general storyline, anything that has to do with a particular theme. In this case, the theme presented was to relate especially to issues of their religiosity and any changes they underwent if at all in this regard in different periods of their lives, and particularly during adolescence. This retrospective report was intended to collect the individual’s perspective on religion as it relates to development in general. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and clear affective signs (e.g., excitement, crying, laughter, anger) were noted in the transcript.


Three Personal Meanings

The three young women we presented self-identified as women for whom religion was significant during adolescence. All three are from the same social religious milieu; all three take their religious identity seriously and are now committed to its tenets; all three, if asked, might reach cognitive consensus regarding what the basic precepts, beliefs, and obligations of Jewish Orthodox religiosity are; and all three perhaps are similar in their current levels of observance. However, each of these three women experience religiosity differently and find different aspects of religion significant in ways coherent with their particular ways of meaning making in other domains. Moreover, the analysis shows that religion played a different role in facing challenges of adolescence, related to their having different developmental needs.

Religion for Leah, for better or for worse, was meaningful to the extent that it touched on issues of moral reparation, social justice, dignity, or lack thereof, and was described in relation to her dealing with the challenge of creating an adult identity that deals with deep-seated feelings of slight.

Religion was meaningful for Debra when related to issues of creating authentic, caring, and reciprocal relationships. In adolescence and beyond, she latched on to those aspects of religion that helped her forge an identity that could address deep-seated feelings of neglect and indifference that tend to trigger anxiety and panic.

Sarah’s religiosity was discussed in the context of it helping her separate from parents and construct a valued and affirmed sense of self.


The purpose of the study was to test the feasibility and utility of our general framework in examining the role of religion in the process of adolescing. In accordance with our stated objectives we believe we have tentatively demonstrated that (1) the framework is useful in extracting internally consistent and coherent pictures of personal meanings of religion from narrative accounts; (2) that a different focus on religious issues can indeed be found in different individuals’ narrative accounts, each coherent with, and clarified through, a broader personal meaning-making system; and (3) that the particular meanings accorded to religion are related to their function in helping each narrator deal with their particular adolescent challenges.

If indeed so, this raises the question of whether nomothetic approaches to study the religious development of adolescents can capture their experiences adequately. The case studies are not intended to prove that an idiographic approach is necessarily the better one. They instead serve to challenge the exclusive adoption of nomothetic ones by exemplifying that respondents attach significantly different meanings to religion in ways consistent with broader identity concerns and idiosyncratic adolescent developmental challenges.


Hadad, T., & Schachter, E. P. (2011). “Religious-lite”: A phenomenon and its relevance to the debate on identity development and emerging adulthood. Journal of Youth Studies, 14(8), 853–869. 13676261.2011.616487

Schachter, E. P. (2004). Identity configurations: A new perspective on identity formation in contemporary society. Journal of Personality, 72(1), 167–200. https://

Schwab, J. R. (2013). Religious meaning making: Positioning identities through stories. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 5(3), 219–226.

Updated: Jul. 24, 2019
Research | Adolescents | Religious identity | Religious Zionism