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.

17 June: Save the Date

As a part of the project, Newman University is going to be hosting a Language and Religion Symposium on 17 June (Friday) in Birmingham. The event will feature academics, students, and practitioners talking about the role of language in religious experience and expression. The event will be a hybrid event, so you can attend online or in person. A full speaker list will be circulated in March.

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.