Researcher of the Month – September 2020, Jodie Salter

Jodie Salter is a PhD Candidate in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science (PRHS) at the University of Leeds. She is a member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life (CRPL) and is funded by the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH).

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

My ‘research journey’ began by studying Theology and Religious Studies as an undergraduate (though I probably owe a lot to my philosophy and ethics teachers at school). By the end of the degree I felt I had only begun to scratch the surface of the more interesting debates in religious studies, and so, following some time working, decided to return to do an MA in Religion and Public Life at Leeds. During the masters I was able to conduct a small research project on religious identity and interfaith dialogue which drove home the importance (and difficulties) of fieldwork and felt like the first time I was conducting ‘real’ research. This was complemented by the opportunities, offered to us as postgraduates, to engage more fully with the CRPL research community and see the incredibly diverse ways in which research addressing the broad area of religion is conducted. After the MA, I took some more time out but fairly quickly realised that I wanted to return to do a PhD, which I was able to do thanks to a WRoCAH studentship and with the support of my (now) supervisors.

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

In my research I’m considering the role that religion plays in climate change advocacy and activism at the United Nations (UN). I’m focusing more specifically on the engagement of, and with, faith-based organisations (FBOs). There were a combination of factors leading to the research proposal, but it was certainly in part inspired by the religions and global development module I took as an undergraduate. This began to highlight the important role of FBOs and the complex ways in which they navigate their role in the sphere of international policy, humanitarian work and development. I chose to focus specifically on climate change based on my experience with local environmental groups and the increasing salience of religious voices in climate change activism. I decided to address those FBOs engaging with the UN as, despite many unsuccessful climate negotiations, it remains an important arena for climate action and one with which many FBOs choose to engage. 

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

I’m just starting the second year of the PhD during which much of focus will be on conducting fieldwork. Although I had planned to attend COP26 and conduct a portion of fieldwork overseas, I’ve now had to think about making the research work on a remote basis and will be conducting interviews with FBOs via video-call. Whilst I initially thought of this as a barrier, it has actually opened up opportunities for more international collaboration and encouraged me to reflect on new methodological challenges, such as conducting participant observation virtually.

Alongside this I’m working on a chapter of the thesis which will explore the category of religion and how this is applied by the UN and by FBOs themselves. I’m particularly interested in what is seen to constitute religion and how much this is shaped by the UN as a nominally secular, historically European/US institution; how it affects the nature of their engagement with FBOs, and the ways in which FBOs have to negotiate their faith-based identity across the different contexts in which they work.  This becomes particularly interesting in the context of climate change activism as there are so many assumptions about the environmentally-friendliness (or not) of particular religious traditions, which are inextricably linked to the ways in which we attempt to categorise religious groups themselves. 

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

I see FBOs as very much a part of public life and to see them advocating or campaigning for climate action, not just as environmental organisations but as distinctively faith-based, is a great example of religion operating in, and influencing, public life. Though religious groups and FBOs have a long history with environmental activism and particularly the climate justice movement, recent events including the publication of Laudato si’ and Extinction Rebellion’s Faith Bridge, though of course there are myriad other examples, have demonstrated the very public role that religion plays in climate action.

A frequently recurring topic in my research is what it means for religious groups to engage with the UN, and vice versa. This taps directly into the relationship between religion and public life, and is one which is constantly changing as we see new types of FBO appear, new UN projects designed to engage with religious groups, and the changing expectations from policymakers as to what FBOs can and should provide in terms of social, economic, or moral capital. The international nature of the UN, and of many FBOs, complicates the relationship between religion and public life as what constitutes ‘public life’ can have vastly different interpretations across the world. The argument that religion remains fully integrated into public life in many areas of the world can lead to the assumption that FBOs have ‘easy access’ to local communities simply by virtue of being religious, which is certainly not the whole story. Likewise, the presumption by many that public life is inherently secular in other areas of the world can mean that the role and influence of religion in climate change activism is actually underestimated. 

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