Researcher of the Month – October 2018, Dr Caroline Starkey

Dr Caroline Starkey is a Lecturer in the Study of Religions at the University of Leeds and is a member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life.

Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?

 I don’t think my journey has been particularly linear, although a desire to make sense of the function of religion in society has motivated me for a long time. After completing a history degree, mostly focusing on medieval religious history, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. After a bit of travelling, I began volunteering at York Rape Crisis and then I trained as a social worker.  Looking back, I was very young and maybe because of this, my experience of the job was brutal. It was, however, utterly formative for my research and teaching.  For a couple of years, I worked in an ethnically and religiously diverse part of West Yorkshire, and although I didn’t know how to articulate this at the time, I began to question the instrumental ways we, as a statutory service, engaged with ‘religion.’  It all felt rather cursory, even when I was supporting people who were dying.  Whilst I was working full time, I came across the MA in Religion and Public Life at Leeds, and I did this part-time as a way to think through some of the issues that were bubbling to the surface in my social work practice.  The opportunity to study for a PhD arose a couple of years later. I originally wanted to research a group of Buddhist nuns in Cambodia who had been mobilized to work in community development with local women, but before I could submit my application for funding, I adopted a child and decided I needed to stay in the UK for a bit.  I was in a café, queuing for a coffee, when I met a Scottish Buddhist nun, and listening to her story led to me completing a PhD on women in British Buddhism.  After my PhD and some temporary teaching and research work, I became a Lecturer in the Study of Religions at Leeds in 2018.


Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?

 My research interests are quite diverse, and include gender, minority religions, and religion and social welfare, shaped directly by my experiences in social care.  I think of myself, foremost, as a sociologist of religion in contemporary Britain, and I like making sense of all the different ways that religion is experienced in this context.  I didn’t grow up in the UK – I was born in the Philippines, and my family travelled around to Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Australia (via Essex). I am a typical Third Culture Kid – feeling connected to many places but belonging nowhere. The many kinds of personal adaptations that I have had to undertake have made me think about the trajectories and translations of religious practices as they move across cultures and societies.  I grew up with religion being expressed in a very public, communal way and this has shaped my interest in the relationship between public and private religion, and people (particularly women) who make non-mainstream religious choices.  I vividly remember the Tamil festival of Thaipusam in Singapore, where devotees pierce their skin, tongues and cheeks with spears, and I used to love the annual Hungry Ghost festival, hearing the chanting, smelling the sharp incense, and watching the offerings to ancestors burn. Religion, for me, was loud, colourful, public, emotive and visceral and it had less to do with individual belief, more to do with what you do as part of the collective.  I have carried these formative experiences with me and they have directly shaped my definitions of religion, and my interest in those people who embody this kind of public presentation, including those making life-long, non-mainstream commitments, such as monastics.


What are you currently, or about to start, working on?

This summer, I completed my monograph – Women in British Buddhism– which will be published by Routledge in 2019.  This was based on my doctoral work, but deepened through research I undertook post-doctorally with Emma Tomalin and funded by Historic England. We completed the first national surveys of Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Zoroastrian and Bahai buildings in England, and mapped the stories of the development and significance of minority faith spaces.  Women’s roles in the construction of these spaces and places is a core part of my monograph, alongside an analysis of their experiences of religious conversion, discipline, and gender equality.  Over the past two years, I have been working with Grace Davie (University of Exeter) on an amazing project analysing the correspondence sent to Bishop Nicholas Chamberlain, the Bishop of Grantham, when he declared that he was gay and, in a relationship, the first Church of England Bishop to do so publically. This project has been one of the most emotional I have worked on – and through often intimate and very moving correspondence, we were given a unique lens through which to think about the role of religion and religious institutions in British society.  We are aiming to formally launch a report on this work in early 2019.  In terms of other research, I am hoping to evaluate some work I’ve been leading on in relation to student mental health, and I also have a project on British Buddhist groups and state relationships through mindfulness programmes that I’m determined to begin.


In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?

From the beginning of my research career, understanding relationships between religion and state actors has been an important area of interest for me. In particular, I’m more often attentive to these interactions though a local lens – small communities and sub-cultures – more micro-level exchanges. Most likely because of my own history, I often find myself wanting to challenge what ‘public life’ really means for individuals in Britain, particularly for non-mainstream religious communities of practice. I have done this in my work with British Buddhist nuns, as well as through research with religious groups providing social welfare in an area of Leeds called Chapeltown, which I completed under an AHRC Fellowship in 2016. No doubt because of my formative training under Professor Kim Knott, I tend to think spatially and locally about the role of material culture in public and private religious interactions.  In my monograph, I dedicated a whole chapter examining minutiae of Buddhist women’s dress and hair practices in Britain and another to women’s experiences of building British Buddhist centres.  I am interested in how seemingly private and intimate decisions around dress relate to the ways individuals are perceived in public, and the effects of this on religious practices and experiences. Exploring the built landscape of minority faith in Britain has dominated my work over the past couple of years and I thoroughly enjoy researching contemporary British religious buildings, particularly those that have been adapted and re-used into public places for worship, such as factories and other such industrial spaces. For me, looking at the built environment is a fantastic way to understand religious change in contemporary Britain.

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