Stephen Pihlaja is an author and academic researching and teaching at Newman University in Birmingham (UK). My work focuses on the dynamics of discourse, or language in use, particularly in online interaction around religious issues. I analyse discourse to understand how people present themselves and their beliefs to diverse audiences, and how technology changes not just the presentation of belief, but how and what people believe. To do this, I employ different methods of discourse analysis to investigate metaphor, narrative, and antagonism in interaction.
I will be speaking about my research at ARU in a couple of weeks. Booking is essential to get the link!
AHSS Research Seminars 27 October 2021, 12:00-13:00 Researching Language and Religion in Different Contexts Stephen Pihlaja
Religious faith and identity is often treated as a single, stable category. However, interaction between religious believers and people both in their own community and those who don’t share the same religious beliefs reveals that religious identity is more complex and beliefs can be articulated in different ways depending on the context. This presentation will focus on how discourse analysis can be used to track and trace positioning around religious belief and how constituent parts of religious belief shifts depending on the people interacting. The effects of social media and other mediated contexts on the presentation of belief will also be explored, with a focus on how linguistic methods can be used to understand the emergence of religious identities in interaction.
For the first several months of this project, I have been meeting people, taking walks, having meetings, and doing anything I can to expand my contacts past the most obvious connections I had known before the project started. I have been keeping notes on my interactions with everyone I meet. These notes have been my memories of things that have happened, or things people have told me. As I read write them, I have been trying to hard to stay as ‘objective’ as possible; that is, I’m trying to avoid evaluative language or write things that veer off into my own interpretations. But of course, simply remembering is a kind of implicit analysis. You can’t remember everything and what you remember is inevitably a complex mix of your own identity, the identity of the person you’re talking to, and the context of the conversation.
I have not decided yet what role these notes will play in my analysis, if they will simply act as a reference for me, or if I will try to do some more formal analysis of them. For now, I am moving into the more formal interviews for the project, with recordings and transcripts to analyse. The informal conversations, however, will play an important role in how I think about the interviews that I will now do and the things that these interviews will inevitably focus on. I’m confident that these conversations have been essential for the next step and for building the necessary background for showing me where the project should focus and where the analysis is needed.
Much of the work of this project so far has been meeting people and meeting more people and then meeting more people. I have been travelling around the city the last three weeks, talking to various leaders and learning more about how religious communities live and and worship together, with while trying to get some sense of the space of the city, particularly south Birmingham, where I have been doing the bulk of my work. It strikes me that many of the populations of interest, particularly when it comes to superdiversity, are small, concentrated communities, often not visible unless you know exactly when and where to look for them. I’ve been grateful to so many different people for helping me by introducing me to everyone they know.
A highlight so far has been meeting with the mayor as a part of the Citizens UK Birmingham Leadership Group, to discuss our priorities with him. The more I learn about community organising, the more I realise the important of timing and being careful to find the right time and place to pursue particular priorities. What is the right place and the right time to do each action will change, depending on the circumstances and you need to be open and willing to adapt to the circumstances around you.
As a person with an American accent in Birmingham, people often ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ I’m often slightly annoyed when I answer this question particularly if it comes up when someone in a shop is asking me this after I’ve asked where some item I can’t find is. I’m from Birmingham: it’s the place that I consider home. You can imagine that most people don’t accept this answer and it usually gets followed up with, ‘Right, but where are you really from?’ and I have to launch into the long confusing story about why I ended up here, of all places.
The thing about Birmingham is that quite a few people are not really from around here. Yesterday, I was looking at a map Bartley Green with the warden at St Michael’s CofE church and we were talking about how everything had been built after the war — all the families had been transplanted from other places. After two months of talking to people in south Birmingham, I’ve been struck by how many stories of people and communities include some movement either within the city, or from other places in the country, or from outside of Britain.
My project is interested in Superdiversity, which for me includes the sense that there are really no majority categories in the city. This is certainly true looking at the changing demographic data around ethnicity, but is less clear when you look at the census data for religion. Birmingham is still a majority Christian city, with large minority Muslim and non-religious populations, followed by Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jewish people. These larger categories, however, mask vast diversity within different faith groups — Christians might be Catholic, or Anglican, or Pentecostal; Muslims could be Shi’a or Sunni, or from conservative or liberal mosques; the ‘nons’ cover everyone from ardent atheists, to the spiritual but not religious.
As I reflect on my first few months of this project, I am struck by how these two features — diversity in where we’re from and diversity in what we believe — of Birmingham come together when communities emerge in particular places. If we want to know what it means for someone to be of faith or of no faith in a particular place at a particular time, there’s so much more to find out than just asking them to tick a box on a form. And what you might assume about someone about the way the look, or sound, might be misleading too. This is just a starting point, of course, but the construction of categories of faith and regional and ethnic identity in the stories we tell about ourselves do seem to be important to understanding how local communities function and how telling these stories can be important for thinking about why things are the way they are.
I’m very excited to announce the launch of my edited collection Analysing Religious Discourse.
Analysing Religious Discourse Book Launch 19 July, 1PM-2PM (BST)
Celebrate the publication of Analysing Religious Discourse! The first edited collection of its kind, the volume introduces contemporary research on religious discourse from a variety of theoretical and methodological perspectives, including ethnography, metaphor, cognition, and many, many more topics. The launch will feature presentations by many of the volume’s contributors.
I spent the last three days at the Citizens UK three-day leadership training and really enjoyed it. Lots to think about in terms of what a leader is and how change happens within communities. This year, all training has been done online and it will be interesting to reflect on the effect of Covid on religious identity and superdiverse communities going forward.
Welcome to the website for the AHRC-funded Leadership Fellowship ‘Language and Religion in the Superdiverse City’, hosted at Newman University in Birmingham. The project fellow is Stephen Pihlaja and will be making regular updates on the project Twitter @superdivercity.