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.