Representing Living Religions in Diaspora: Shaping Public Understanding of Faiths in Society
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Leeds
Unit of AssessmentTheology and Religious Studies
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies, Literary Studies
Philosophy and Religious Studies: Religion and Religious Studies
Summary of the impact
Leeds research on religions in contexts of migration and diaspora has
effected improvements in representation and public understanding of
religion in Britain. Key areas are: (a) high-profile public debates,
where we have shifted assumptions about religious communities in Britain;
(b) national museums, where we have enabled new ways of
representing religions in diaspora, and advanced engagement with minority
communities; (c) schools, where we have developed
educational resources on the complex trajectories of communities in
diaspora. The impact occurred between 2009 and 2012, drawing on research
from 1993 onwards (Knott, McLoughlin, Tomalin), and a 35-year record of
research with religious communities.
Empirical research on and with religious communities "near at hand",
pioneered at Leeds since 1976 through the ongoing Community Religions
Project (CRP: see http://arts.leeds.ac.uk/crp/), has enabled public
discourse about religion to be connected to the lived realities of a
multi-faith and secular society. Leeds has led research on the
interactions between religious communities and state actors, and the
development of conceptual frameworks for interpreting the
interrelationships of religion, ethnicity, class, locality, state/nation
and diaspora. Religion has been neglected as a category in diaspora
studies, while the study of religion has been slow to engage migration and
diaspora; this mutual neglect is redressed in Leeds research. Key
researchers are Kim Knott (Leeds 1976-2012, PhD researcher, Senior
Lecturer, Professor), Seán McLoughlin (Leeds 2000-present, Senior
Lecturer), and Emma Tomalin (Leeds 2002-present, Senior Lecturer).
Building on seminal ethnographies of religious communities in Leeds, the
CRP's agenda developed from the late 1990s to address emerging public and
civic concerns on religious diversity. The importance beyond the academy
of this research is demonstrated in successive commissioned/partnership
projects, including `Inter-religious social action in Leeds' (Leeds Church
Institute [LCI], 1996-1998); `Leeds Pilot Faiths Consultation Exercise'
(Home Office/LCI, 2004); and the `British Hinduism Oral History Project'
(Heritage Lottery Fund/Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, 2000-4).
From the 2000s, Leeds produced innovative research in the study of
religion across disciplinary boundaries especially in terms of theories of
location, space and diaspora. Knott is an internationally leading
researcher on religious plurality and religion and spatiality (1, 2). In
recognition of her research leadership in this area, in 2005 Knott was
appointed Director of AHRC's `Diasporas, Migration and Identities'
Programme (DMI; www.diasporas.ac.uk); she was often commissioned to speak
on the basis of her research contribution, engaging the study of religion
in Europe with issues relating to diasporas, migration and identities. In
2010 Knott was awarded an AHRC `Impact Fellowship' to bring the research
findings of the DMI Programme to a wider audience.
Alongside McLoughlin's theoretical work on religion and diaspora,
an ongoing focus of his ethnographic research has been trans-national or
global Islamic identities -as reflected in his recent work which is the
first to examine British Muslims' experience and practice of Hajj
and its transformation in diaspora (4). Tomalin and McLoughlin's
interdisciplinary project `Writing British Asian Cities' (6) refined a new
approach to the history of British Asian settlement developed by
McLoughlin (5). In workshops held in community spaces and involving local
writers, politicians and cultural workers, it examined previously
unassembled archives documenting how five cities have been `written' by
different constituencies, juxtaposing discordant texts across scholarly
ethnography, oral history, literary/cultural production and official/media
Knott and McLoughlin's co-edited volume (3) brings together the
theoretical reflection on diasporas that arises from and increasingly
shapes Leeds research. Original case studies of diasporas worldwide are
featured, testing the usefulness of `diaspora' for analysing the
complexity of contemporary transnational lives. McLoughlin's chapter on
Islamic consciousness tests distinctions usually made in diaspora studies
between universal and ethnic traditions, and explores how religious
imaginaries can provide a focus for new homing desires.
References to the research
1. Knott, Kim (2005) `Researching local and national pluralism: Britain's
new religious landscape', M Baumann and S Behloul, eds, Religioser
Pluralismus: Empirische Studien und analytische Perspektiven, pp.
45-68, Bielefeld: transcript Verlag. [Representative example of Knott's
research; cited by EU Network on Religious Plurality, and in English-and
German-language monographs on religion in diaspora/ religion in the public
2. Knott, Kim (2009) `From locality to location and back again: A spatial
journey in the study of religion', Religion, 39:2, pp. 154-60.
DOI: 10.1016/j.religion.2009.01.003 [Peer-reviewed article.]
3. Knott, Kim and McLoughlin, Seán (eds.) (2010) Diasporas: Concepts,
Intersections, Identities. London: Zed Books. [Represents the
summation of earlier research by Knott and McLoughlin, as well as Knott's
direction of the DMI Programme. Cited in recent publications on diaspora
related to Ireland, Croatia, India; positive reviews by international
4. McLoughlin, Seán (2009) `Contesting Muslim Pilgrimage:
British-Pakistani Identities, Sacred Journeys to Makkah and Madinah and
the Global Postmodern', in Kalra, V. S. (ed.) The Pakistani Diaspora,
Karachi and Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 233-265. [Forms part of
5. McLoughlin, Seán (2006), 'Writing a BrAsian City: Race, Culture and
Religion in Accounts of postcolonial Bradford', in Ali, N. Kalra, V.S. and
Sayyid, S. (eds.) A Postcolonial People: South Asians in Britain,
London, Hurst, pp. 110-49. [Submitted for RAE2008]
(1) AHRC-funded research network `Writing British Asian cities'
(2006-2009, £20,628) - Seán McLoughlin, Emma Tomalin, William Gould,
Ananya Kabir (all University of Leeds)
(2) AHRC Director's Impact Fellowship for Diasporas, Migrations and
Identities programme (2010-2011, £142,960) - Kim Knott
(3) AHRC `Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam' (2011-2012, £17,000) -
Seán McLoughlin funded from grant to British Museum
Details of the impact
The need for better articulation, in public debates around
religion and the state, of the complex diasporic character of religious
communities in Britain — as well as Knott's research leadership in this
area — was reflected in her invitation to be a keynote speaker in the
Westminster Faith Debates in February 2012. She presented an overview
based on Leeds research of Britain's experience of living with religious
diversity since the 1970s, to a high-profile audience from politics, the
public and third sector, think-tanks and faith communities. She was quoted
extensively in national media debate as the representative of a new
perspective on religious identity in Britain, sparking discussion of how
to move beyond established arguments about "multiculturalism" (a).
In this context of wider interest in the complexities of British
religious identities, Leeds research on the specificities of these
identities has changed public representation and understanding through
work with national museums. On the basis of his earlier
Leeds research, McLoughlin was commissioned in 2011 by the British Museum
(BM) to work on British Muslims' experience of Hajj, for the major
exhibition "Hajj: A Journey to the Heart of Islam" (January-April 2012).
His contribution was a key determinant both of the exhibition's
representation of British Muslims and their engagement with it.
McLoughlin's ethnographic research, building on his earlier publications,
supplied materials for a discrete panel in the exhibition, and an audio
loop of interviewees; he was an adviser to the curating team (g),
supported the development of educational material, and promoted public
engagement. He spoke at a study day for the BM's members and the public on
10th March 2012, and the "Arabia Late" public event on 9th
March. A sustained web presence for the ethnographic research was
constructed at Leeds, and received coverage in Hajj-related online forums
(b). McLoughlin also provided the introduction, and advised on the
structure and format, for short films on Hajj produced by Leeds Museums
Discovery Centre, a BM regional partner. Research undertaken for the
exhibition forms the basis of an article for the Public Spirit
online forum for researchers, policymakers, politicians and practitioners
(June 2013, promoted as a special feature to coincide with Hajj — October
The BM Hajj exhibition was a noted success, attracting 140,000 visitors
(almost double its target) of whom two-thirds were from Black and Minority
Ethnic communities (c). The BM's Assistant Curator confirmed that
McLoughlin's contribution was "integral to the success of the exhibition",
not only in ensuring "rigour" and "balance" in the exhibition itself, but
also, through the research process itself, raising awareness of the
exhibition in Muslim communities across the UK (e). The Project Curator
commented "Muslims felt involved... which is illustrated by the fantastic
visitor numbers and feedback we received" (f).
Working with McLoughlin's anthropological approach represented a new
departure for the BM and there are specific plans to draw on this
experience for future practice, most immediately in a redisplay of the
Islamic galleries (e). The BM's Digital Learning Programmes Manager
commented "The audio recordings and accompanying transcripts of British
Muslims collected by Seán [McLoughlin]'s team were incredibly useful for
the Education Team in building a mobile learning application for the
exhibition. The transcripts... helped shape the design of the
activities... Having these first hand accounts of Hajj is an invaluable
way to bring the objects alive for students" (g).
Knott's Director's Fellowship work has also shaped national museums'
representation of religion and diaspora. In 2011 she co-organised a
workshop with the National Maritime for museum curators and researchers
(including senior curators and directors of education from NMM, BM,
Imperial War Museum, V&A) on Sensitive Objects, their
relationship to religious and cultural identities particularly among
diasporic communities, and implications for handling and display.
Participants said they had "found the theme a helpful and productive one
to consider" (h).
To develop impact in schools, working with design company
Millipedia, the Citizenship Foundation and the Runnymede Trust, Knott
developed in 2011 Moving People, Changing Places, a website and
accompanying book to inform a public audience, including young people,
about migration, identities and diasporic communities. Research by
McLoughlin, Knott and Tomalin (grant 2, above) is used to frame
discussions of religion and diaspora and to focus on Muslim and
British-Asian communities. Targeted at KS3 and 4 for Citizenship goals on
`Identity and Diversity', the site was trialled by Knott with school
groups as part of the Runnymede Trust's project Generation 3.0.
The learning resources have been publicised by the TES, Historical
Association, Geographical Association and Citizenship Foundation (f). The
book has been adopted by local government EMA consultants, as a training
resource on migration and diversity particularly in work with schools (i).
The continuing impact of Leeds diasporas research on public
debates internationally as well as nationally is seen most
recently in McLoughlin's British Council-organised speaking tour of
Michigan (April 2013). The tour was planned by the Council to bring
research insights, gained from the study of Islam in the UK, to Southeast
Michigan as the area of the USA with the highest concentration of Muslims.
Activities included public events at mosques, and meetings with community
group leaders, museum directors and policy researchers (j).
Sources to corroborate the impact
Dates after web-based sources are dates accessed.
(a) Example of coverage of Knott's contribution, The Tablet:
(article on 4th February 2012, "Faith and unity through
diversity", accessed 1st March 2013). See also Westminster
Faith Debates website, with overview of findings and media coverage of
(1st September 2013).
(b) Example of uptake and promotion of McLoughlin's research in British
Muslim community - Council of British Hajjis:
http://dobuy.co.uk/cbhuk/?p=1858 (1st September 2013).
(c) British Museum Report and Accounts year ended 31st March
2012, p. 3. http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/hc1213/hc04/0400/0400.pdf
(1st September 2013)
(d) Examples of links to the resource, with recommendations, from
educational websites: TES
(1st March 2013); Citizenship Foundation
(1st March 2013). Links are to Moving People, Changing Places:
(1st September 2013).
(e) Assistant Keeper (Curator) Islamic and contemporary Middle East,
British Museum (personal communication held on file)
(f) Project Curator, Hajj Exhibition, British Museum (personal
communication held on file)
(g) Digital Learning Programmes Manager, British Museum (personal
communication held on file)
(h) Feedback from National Maritime Museum `Sensitive Objects'
exhibition, forwarded from Head of Research
(i) EMA Consultant, Equalities and Entitlement Team, Leeds City Council
(personal communication held on file)
(j) Director, "Our Shared Future" project, British Council USA (personal
communication held on file)