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.