Professional Development

I was really pleased to present the findings from the project for teachers at Ark Victoria Academy in Small Heath last month as well as talking about the power of community-engaged outreach at St George’s Church Edgbaston. In both places, I spoke about the power of personal narrative in talking about one’s faith both to majority Christian and majority Muslim audiences. I’m always struck at these events by how similar we all are, regardless of our faith, in the goals that we share for ourselves and those around us.

Narrative Inquiry Article

I am very pleased to say that the first article from the project has now been published in Narrative Inquiry. This is an academic journal, so the article is written in very academic language, but if you’re interested in seeing what it’s about, please look here: I’m very happy to pass on a copy of the article to anyone who might be interested.

I’m also working on several other pieces for two more academic journals, but also on a blog post for a teaching association and perhaps some work with charities as well. I’m very interested and happy to run CPD sessions for anyone interested in talking about religious identity in superdiverse places, in education and other community settings, so please be in contact!

Super-diversity and the future

Wednesday marked the final day of my current funding for the Superdivercity Project, as a Leadership Fellowship with the AHRC. I’m incredibly thankful for the time I’ve had to work on the project over the last year and half. I’ve gathered some great insights about the language and religion in this city and how people understand themselves and others, and how language and discourse is important to making those identities meaningful in the world. This is particularly important as the census data released this week confirmed that Birmingham is one of the first super-diverse cities in the country. So much good work is going on in this beautiful city, bringing people together of different faiths and backgrounds.

If you’re interested in the academic outputs, they are currently four that I’m working on:

Pihlaja, Stephen. (forthcoming) Abstraction in Storytelling. Narrative Inquiry.

Pihlaja, Stephen. (under review) Using Positioning Analysis to Trace Religious Identity in Discourse. Discourse Studies

Pihlaja, Stephen, Richardson, Peter, and Charles Mueller (in preparation) Cognitive Blending and Positioning in Talk about Religious Diversity. Cognitive Linguistics

Pihlaja, Stephen. (under contract) Language and Religion in the Superdiverse City. CUP Elements.

Each one of these will highlight a different element of the project analysis that I’ve done and the final one, which will be a short monograph on the project, will talk about all the work that I’ve done in a more complete way. I’m very much looking forward to seeing these come out over the next two years. I’ll also be applying for some follow-on funding to help me better promote the infographic I developed and find new ways to share it with others, ideally through professional development training for teachers, parents, and school governors, for presentations in schools, and for religious organisations. I’ll be working on those ideas in the coming months.

Please do continue to the follow the project at it goes forward and I will do my best to keep it updated and everyone informed ab

Talking about beliefs

A key part of this project has been finding a way to communicate the findings in a simple and clear way. I’m really happy to everyone who gave feedback about the findings that led to this infographic. I’m really excited to finally be able to share this and would like to make it available to anyone who would like.

I have ordered 30 posters and 1400 postcards to be distributed in places where people might benefit from this message. If you would like to receive a poster to display, or any postcards, please use this form.

Presenting the project

I will be speaking to the Aston Stylistics Research Group at the beginning of next month (1 Dec, Thursday, at 16:00 UCT), as the project comes to a close. The talk will be online, so all are welcome! The talk is called ‘In a bit of a muddle’: Positioning and storylines in talk about religious identity and here is the abstract:

This talk focuses on religious identity in talk about community life in Birmingham, particularly in contexts where people of different religious beliefs are regularly in contact with one another. Drawing on interviews and fieldwork undertaken during an 18-month, AHRC leadership fellowship entitled ‘Language and Religion in the Superdiverse city’, I will discuss how self and other positioning emerges in talk about religious identity and how these positionings draw on storylines about different religions and ways of being religious in the contemporary world. Analysis will show religious identity is constructed using categories, particularly in contrast and comparison to other categories, and how the use and understanding of those categories can shift depending on contextual factors. I will argue that a more dynamic understanding of religious identity has consequences for how religious belief is understood in society and how people of different religious faiths and backgrounds come to understand one another and people of no faith in diverse settings.

Reflections on interviews

As I sat in a conference a couple of weeks ago, reflecting on the time I’ve spent over the last year gathering data, I was suddenly filled with a strange panicked thought: why did I interview my participants? The initial answer is obvious: because that’s what you do when you’re trying to find things out about people and what they think — how else are you supposed to know if you don’t ask them? The data I’ve gathered has been more or less what I needed. People have told me about their experiences and as I’ve analysed the data, patterns are starting to emerge in how people talk about their experiences and there have been commonalities that are worth noting.

At the same time, the panic I felt, was the result of wondering, but what if people just told me things that were limited to what I asked about. What if there was something else that I needed to investigate, something beyond the limited questions that I asked and much more important than whatever it was I asked about.

This panic passed relatively quickly as I thought about it more: I had spent a lot of time with people just chatting, visiting them in their organisations and places of worship, having cups of coffee and tea with them, reading the literature, reflecting on my own experiences living in the city for eight and half years. Of course, there would always be limits to the data I collected, but the questions I asked were oriented toward the things I was investigating and the answers have revealed important and noteworthy findings.

But I do still wonder if I’ve put too much focus on the interviews as ‘data’ because they are something concrete. Unlike my notes, I treat them as more objective in some way, like they have a kind of truth that’s more tangible. I wonder what other data I could have collected, and what other things I might collect when I expand this project in the future: the recordings of worship services or websites or communications between people in a community. The interview transcripts are certainly not bad and any kind of data that is collected is oriented towards the collector in some way. There’s no magic reality where the researcher can be a kind of Emersonian transparent eyeball perceiving the world. That said, I think it’s important to treat these transcripts as only one part of the project and go back to those original notes I made when I met with people informally and give them another look in light of what I know now at the end of the project.

Are you welcome?

The Mormon church in Harborne, which opened up as a vaccination centre last year, has a sign on the front that says ‘Vistors Welcome’. I have never been to a Mormon church before and have been thinking about attending a service there if I have a free Sunday morning one day. I’ve wondered though if I actually am welcome, if I can just rock up in my normal street clothes and take part — that’s the funny thing about language, sometimes when you say something, people might think the exact opposite thing. If you’re saying everyone’s welcome, it suggests that some people must think that they’re not welcome, and they probably have a reason for thinking that.

It’s a difficult issue when it comes to religious faith: on whose terms are you welcome and how can you change perceptions when people don’t feel welcome. I first understood the power of welcome in Islam when I went to Istanbul with my family in 2011. Everyone in Istanbul was kind to us and I initially was incredibly uncomfortable: strangers picking up my children, the street sweeper telling me and my wife what a great mix our kids were. But after the initial shock, we were overwhelmed with how much genuine love was shown by everyone. I remember saying at the time that if only you could get the most hardcore anti-Muslim racist in the States and take them to Istanbul, if they could have some ice cream and Turkish Delight and wander in the markets, there would be no way they could stay racist. How could you hate Muslims when you felt that sort of love from everyone around you.

Last Friday, I attended the University of Birmingham’s community Iftar, one of the things I have most been looking forward to since Covid shut it down for two years. I didn’t go with anyone, and after the speeches in the Great Hall were done, I wandered outside to the tarps put out on the Chancellor’s Court, under the lights strung up and Old Joe, and sat by myself. In a couple of minutes, two other men, who didn’t know each other or me, and who had both come alone, sat with me, and we broke the fast together, and they invited me to come pray with them. After the prayers, we ate and talked about our lives and the challenges of living a meaningful life. It was completely serendipitous and true display of Islam as I understand it, where people of all different walks of life sit and share food together.

I left to walk home and wondered again about welcome, thinking these days not about American racists, but other people I would have loved to have seen at the Iftar. I had felt an overwhelming feeling of welcome, of course, but then again I’m a cis-gender, straight, white man: would I have felt the same way if I was gay and with my partner? I could ask the same question about St Peters, the local Anglican church that I attend as a hopeful atheist: the doors are open, and anyone is welcome, but not everyone feels welcome. Welcome is, of course, something that must be both offered and felt. I love the language of inter-religious dialogue, the focus on building bridges and finding common ground, but I wonder if it simplifies the more difficult things that we need to talk about. We say all are welcome, but does everyone feel welcome. Welcome is something you need to pursue, not just offer, and it’s probably going to require everyone being a little bit (or a lot) uncomfortable.

Take me to your leader

In this project, I’ve quite often found myself looking for leaders in the wrong places. You think leaders are easy to identify — they have titles, surely, and offices and email addresses on webpages. Those people are, of course, sometimes very effective leaders and can tell you a lot about their organisations and the people in their community. Many times, however, the people that are actually leading or influencing or changing minds in a community are not out in the front and not speaking down from some high position. They’re grandmothers who are taking grandkids to school every day and having a chat with everyone at the gate. They’re the people making sure that the church roof has been checked after a bad storm. They’re the retired Auntie that you wouldn’t take much notice of because she doesn’t try to get noticed, but knows everyone in the mosque and everything going on.

It’s really hard to fail in community organising, I’ve found so far. You only feel like you fail when you’re trying to do something that the community doesn’t actually want to do, or is your priority, the thing that you think everyone should be doing. This rarely works, but even if you could make it happen, it’s not actually community organising. Community organising requires the people in the community saying what they want and need, and leading to make those changes happen. The organisers stand where they need to stand to make that happen: sometimes it’s at the front of the group, of course, but sometimes it’s at the back. Or the side. Or the middle. Every day I work on this project I’m reminded that what I think people need, or what I think they should be doing, is never right unless it is informed by conversations with people, conversations where I listen to them, and their stories of struggle and success. When I can listen, I can start to see where things are actually going and where I fit in.


This last month, the New York Times released a podcast on the so-called Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham. The podcast is really good listening for anyone interested in the various issues that come into play when racist structures and ideologies come into contact with the petty disagreements of day-to-day life in institutions. What seems to be the driving force behind suspicions about Muslim leaders in schools during this ‘scandal’ was that there were latent prejudices about Pakistani Muslims in Birmingham that manifest themselves as abstract stories about terrorists being groomed in certain areas of Birmingham. Those abstract stories were just that: abstract. They represented strongly held beliefs, so when evidence (in this case, very weak evidence: a clearly inaccurate letter) appeared, it was much easier to believe that it because it fit with that abstract storyline with which people already were familiar. If you believe that immigrant communities are up to no good and plotting terrorism, it’s much easier to believe someone when they tell you that they have evidence of a terrorist plot.

In the stories I have been analysing so far, it’s struck me how easily people move between specific details of stories to how those stories represent the regular sorts of things that people in their lives do or did, or how those details represent the way that specific categories of people do things. It’s not just stereotyping and racism — it’s in everything people do to explain the world around them. Your father was very kind to you, and you can remember one specific time that he was particularly kind. Or the school that you went to was very strict and you can remember one time when they were particularly strict with your friend. These estimations and judgements seem to be tied to stories, and those stories, in their telling, also seem to be stories that people have told before. They aren’t ad hoc memories that appear for no reason — they are the stories that define how each individual sees the world. Hopefully, further investigation will reveal more about how exactly the process of storytelling becomes moral reasoning.