Six months of Superdivercity

Today marks six months of work on this project, one-third of my time has now been completed. When I began, I wasn’t sure exactly how the different elements of the project would come together and how I would balance my desire to understand the work of community organising with gathering and analysing data about religious identity, and I wasn’t even sure it would be possible. Now, having worked for the last six months, I’m still not entirely sure how it does come together, but I have come to have a much better sense of how different communities of religious believers talk about the interactions within their communities and how they see themselves in the city, more generally.

This part of the project has really been focused on coming to understand how things work within the organisations in Citizens UK and to develop relationships with organisations around Bartley Green, where Newman University is located. To do this, I’ve been visiting religious and community organisations around the city, but particularly in Bartley Green, to understand better how the different organisations work together. I’ve visited many different mosques, churches, gurdwaras, and other religious and community organisations to hear people talk about the work that they are doing and how they see that work as integrated into the life of the community.

I’ve been really impressed with how people talk about themselves as religious believers in their communities and their interest in working with people from different backgrounds with different beliefs and practices. Everyone I’ve spoken to has had a similar sense that a part of living in a context with people of different faiths is the need to respect those other beliefs and treat everyone as they would like to be treated. It’s been truly inspiring, most of the time.

I’ve also been reflecting on the extent to which people represent themselves and their faith and their community in a particular way when a friendly researcher is asking them about how they get on with others in the community. I wonder if there is any way, in a project of this scope that has been set up in the way that it has, to hear anything but positivity. Of course, no one has told me anything that is untrue, far from it: people have been incredibly forthcoming and told me about many struggles and difficulties. But the stories are all, in some way, oriented toward a sense of how things should be. How people can work together and religious differences become less important in the light of shared values and community goals.

As a researcher, I’m also reflecting on how my initial thoughts simply show the belief I already hold from my previous research, something I’ve written about in many different ways: people position themselves and their beliefs in particular ways when they are asked about them in contexts that value the discussion of faith in a positive way. But there is more to think about and as I begin to look at my transcripts, and interview more and more people, I think I will become more aware of the ways that the complexities come up.

Gathering Data

After the initial rush of the project, and spending many useful weeks travelling around speaking to a variety of different people, there has been a noticeable slowing in the pace as I try to follow up with various people and arrange times for interviews. I have agreements in principle with many different people to get my interviews going, but finding times that work for everyone has been difficult so far. I remember this occurring in my project on diversity in church schools as well, that trying to get the last school interviews was much more difficult than the first three and we spent several months trying to work out an agreeable time. Of course, after the project is done, the month or two or three you waited seems insignificant. You can barely remember it.

While I am changing gears for the project, I am beginning to think about how I will analyse my data. One thing I am interested in how people understand their experiences in common sense ways. Like, if someone mistreats you, or treats you well, you’ll have some reason for why it happens. And the reasons you give will likely relate to what you believe about the world and the sorts of things you expect to happen to you. This is, of course, a problem when the common sense beliefs we have about the world are problematic in some way, like when they include some stereotypes or prejudices. I’m hoping as I gather stories about experiences, I am able to understand better how those stories start to become common sense. And if, in understanding how these stories turn into common sense narratives, we can better identify and disrupt the production of stereotypes. And from that, perhaps we can encourage people to tell new, positive stories about their experiences of people not exactly like themselves.

Talk at Anglia Ruskin University

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.

From notes to data

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.

Meeting people is easy

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.

Where are you from?: First reflections on Superdivercity

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.

Analysing Religious Discourse

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.

Address to join:

Read the introduction now at:

And pre-order the book with discount code ARD2021 at: 

Citizens UK Leadership Training

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.