Researcher of the Month – January 2020, Prof. Emma Tomalin

Emma Tomalin is Professor of Religion and Public Life at the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science, University of Leeds. Her areas of academic expertise are gender, religion and development with a specific focus on South and South-East Asia. She is a founding member of the Leeds Centre for Religion and Public Life. You can follow her on Twitter: @etomalin.

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

My PhD focused on religion and ecology in Britain and India and was published in a revised version as a book in 2010 – Biodivinity and Biodiversity: The Limits to Religious Environmentalism (Routledge). After completing my PhD I became interested in expanding my earlier focus on religions and environmentalism to look at religion and international development discourses and practices. Unlike the field of religion and ecology, where there is a large literature, I discovered that there was next to no literature on religion and development, and also that development NGOs, government donor agencies and multilaterals such as the World Bank and the UN were generally uneasy about engaging with faith actors and rarely took religion into consideration in their work (this was the early 2000s). In 2005 I was part of a successful bid with Birmingham University for a research programme funded by the UK Government’s Department for International Development on Religions and Development (RaD), which ran from 2005-2011.

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

As Professor of Religion and Public Life, I have so far enjoyed a research journey that has focused upon the role of religions in the public sphere, particularly against the backdrop of earlier assumptions in the social sciences that religion was becoming less relevant in people’s lives and would more than likely disappear altogether. What interests me specifically, is the continuing role that religions play in many domains of public service, from social welfare and education, to humanitarian response and peacebuilding, often playing a role alongside a secular state or public service sector, or stepping in when the state cannot or will not fulfill its duties. I am interested in carrying out empirical research in these areas, but also in working out how we can better theorise the location of religion in intersection with erstwhile secular domains.

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

I am currently undertaking a number of projects where I am partnering with faith based organisations, who are interested in better understanding their role in humanitarian, development and peacebuilding spheres, and the difference that their faith identity might make to their work. For instance, Bridging the Gap: the role of local faith actors in humanitarian response in South Sudan, is funded by the Belgian Government and involves The University of Leeds, the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLI), RedR UK, Tearfund and Islamic Relief. I am also co-chair the JLI learning hub on Anti-Trafficking and Modern Slavery with the Salvation Army and an academic colleague in Thailand and we have just produced our first scoping study, with the input from two final year placement students from the University of Leeds. Linked to this, I am also one of the co-investigators on the ESRC funded Understanding the Role of Faith Based Organisations in Anti-Trafficking, which focusses on the UK, with some work also in Spain and the Netherlands. Finally, I just want to mention a new project funded by the AHRC, The hidden peacebuilders: from ambivalence to engagement, strengthening the role of local faith actors in peacebuilding and reconciliation, a collaboration between seven external non-academic partners and overseas academics in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, South Sudan and the USA. We are kicking off the project with our first meeting in Mindanao, Philippines, at the end of January 2020.

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

All of my research examines the role of religion in public life. In addition to the projects I have already mentioned above, I have an interest in the role of minority faith places of worship in the UK. I have undertaken several projects in this area. One focuses on the role of minority faith places of worship as public health settings, funded by Public Health Leeds and Faith Action. Another project I have participated in, has been the Modern Places of Worship Project, of the Baroness Warsi Foundation, the report from which I have co-written with Hollie Gowan, University of Leeds, and Mandip Sahota. It will be launched in the House of Lords later this year. A final piece of research on places of worship, was commissioned by Historic England who wanted to better understand the role that places of worship play in the heritage of immigrant communities to England. We have published a report on Buddhist buildings, and studies on Jain, Hindu, Zorastrian and Baha’i buildings are forthcoming. I am interested in the way that places of worship are more than just places where religious rituals are carried out. In addition to this they tell a public story about histories of migration to a new location, how links with a homeland are maintained and how minorities are received into a host society. They are also locations that have a social value as community meeting places and sites where social welfare services can be provided, a function that has become particularly significant following the financial austerity measures of recent UK Governments.

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