Stephen Pihlaja
/'stiːvən 'pihlaija/

Hi there, my name is Stephen and I'm an applied linguist, discourse analyst, and stylistician researching and teaching at Newman University in Birmingham (UK). I teach a suite of classes in the English subject group, focusing on the use of linguistic tools to study literature, language, and culture. My first book, Antagonism on YouTube was published by Bloomsbury in 2014 and my second book, Religious Talk Online was published this year on Cambridge University Press. I've also recently edited special issues of Language and Literature and Metaphor and the Social World and co-edited the Routledge Handbook of English Language Studies. I also am Head of the Newman University Humanities Research Centre and Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of Language and Discrimination

My own research 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 positioning, categories, and impoliteness in interaction.

I am a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and most recently worked as a Primary Investigator on a Social Innovation Project funded by the Higher Education Funding Council called 'Let's Talk about Sex: equipping student leaders to address sexual violence on campuses'. I am currently working on a Saltley Trust funded project with colleagues at Newman investigating diversity in Birmingham Diocese Anglican primary schools called 'Diversity and Success in Church Schools'. 

I review articles for a variety of different publications, and served as membership secretary for the Poetics and Linguistics Association (PALA) and the secretary for the University Council of General and Applied Linguistics (UCGAL). I am a regular member of the Researching and Applying Metaphor Association (RaAM) and the British Association of Applied Linguistics (BAAL).

Tokyo Presentation in September

1 July 2019

I will be presenting research for English language teachers in Japan in September. See details below and at this link!

Language and Religion in the Super-diverse City

28 May 2019

I’m happy to say that I have submitted my Future Leaders Fellowship (UKRI) application this week. The summary of the project provided to the council is presented below:

Uneasiness about immigration and diversity is an increasing theme in contemporary British life and stories about interactions with people of different religions often illustrate perceived changes in the country. Rapidly shifting urban demographics can mean neighbourhoods and whole cities are now home to high numbers of immigrants from a variety of different backgrounds, creating difficulties building and sustaining social cohesion. Mobile technologies can also facilitate complex connections between people all over the world, with an emerging sense of community and group identity that is not necessarily tied to a physical space. The stories people tell about day-to-day encounters with others play a crucial role in navigating contemporary life because they provide ways of understanding themselves and those around them. They become roadmaps to explaining why people act the way they do, and how to interact with people that one perceives as different. In spite of the importance of these stories, little research leadership exists in projects investigating the close relationship between talk about religious belief and social cohesion. Pressing research questions remain concerning how talk about religion shapes experience, and how positive models of talking about faith can lead to shared community successes.

'Language and Religion in the Super-diverse City' is the first major study of talk about religious belief and practice in a super-diverse, urban context: Birmingham. Building on Dr Stephen Pihlaja's emerging, internationally recognised research into religious interaction on social media, and using principles of ethnography and linguistic analysis, the Fellowship investigates the position of talk about religion in educational, community, and devotional contexts. Working with three postdoctoral research assistants (PDRAs) and Citizens UK Birmingham, an alliance of civil society institutions, Dr Pihlaja will collect a novel, rich dataset of stories that represent the diverse lived experiences of people in the city. Analytic methods will focus on exploring how religious belief and practice affect all elements of social life and how these beliefs and practices frame even interactions that might not obviously be about matters of faith. By combining partnerships with community organisations and schools with empirical methods, the Fellowship will enrich religious discourse analysis from linguistic, sociological, and religious studies perspectives by providing a model for research that foregrounds the participation of community stakeholders.

The findings will provide evidence for community organisers and leaders, teachers, and civil authorities to set priorities based on real data, rather than anecdotal evidence, and investigate how effectively and inclusively talking about religious identity might empower people to value themselves and those around them. The researchers will produce outputs for a variety of different audiences, sharing the findings through different venues: a graphic booklet aimed at young people and students, interactive public forums for community members to provide feedback on the project findings, and a two-day symposium to bring together participants from a range of academic disciplines and community organisations to work together and identify common goals and priorities. Through a range of academic presentations and publications, the Fellowship will be a vehicle for advancing Dr Pihlaja's leadership in Language and Religion and provide the catalyst for Dr Pihlaja to take the findings of the project forward through a new Centre for Language and Religion established at the project's end through a capital investment of £50,000 from Newman University, ensuring the project's continued impact in the future.

Blog post

16 May 2019

There's a blog post I've written up on Fifteen Eighty Four, the CUP Academic Blog, which includes free access to the third chapter of my book for a limited time! Please check it out:



Sheffield Talk

11 May 2019

I'll be speaking on Wednesday, May 15th at 12pm at the University of Sheffield in Jessop West G.03. The talk abstract is below:

Analysing Religious Discourse: Inspiration, authority, and interpretation

 Stephen Pihlaja, Newman University
 This presentation focuses on the ways in which sacred texts are used as authorities in debates between Muslims and Christians. Within both Islam and Christianity, the concept of the ‘Word of God’ is central to establishing right belief and practice. However, the relationship of the ‘Word of God’ to sacred texts can be problematic, particularly when there are disagreements about their meanings. Although the authority of the Bible and Qur’an are undisputed within Christianity and Islam respectively, discursive work is often involved in establishing their meaning, and arguments about what a text means is a regular feature of religious discourse. Using positioning analysis of debates between the Muslim scholar Shabir Ally and several Evangelical Christians, this presentation looks at discourse around sacred texts and how those texts are used to make claims and position speakers and others. Findings show that although the debates suggest a binary opposition between different faiths and their sacred texts, in actuality, positions that speakers take are much more dynamic, with speakers adapting to the changing conditions of each argument.