Research impact: participating in and understanding religious change

By Stephanie Denning

What does it mean to change the world?  As humans we are constantly changing the world – we build houses and create towns and cities out of countryside, we drive cars that pollute the atmosphere, and bend nature to our will – or at least try to.  To varying degrees geographers are concerned with each of these things.  On occasion I tell people that human geography, which is my discipline, is concerned with people and place.  Whilst this could be accused of being anthropocentric, this does make human geography undeniably relevant to society.  I focus here on a small avenue of human geography – the geography of religion – and how research in this area can have impact in the world through action and gaining understanding.

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Many are afraid of or reluctant to accept change.  People have assumptions that change is negative, difficult, and destroying.  Others push for change, for a better future, for possibility, for difference.  Change is inherent to the geography of religion.  Religion is already both changing, and changing the world – negatively and positively.  There is an ongoing concern of religious extremism and terrorism across the world, when at the same time here in the UK is it faith-based organisations who are increasingly responding to food poverty through foodbanks and other charitable initiatives to alleviate poverty.  For example, the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the UK notes in its 2014 report that many of the volunteers at charities responding to food poverty in the UK by providing food (for example food banks) are Christians.  Yet statistically church attendance has been falling since the last century.  The geography of religion can give impact to the world by bringing greater understanding of these issues, and providing a means for approaching religion and faith in society, and for greater understanding of people and place.

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Currently in the second year of my PhD in Human Geography, my research looks to actively participate in changing religion as a means to understand religious faith.  As a Christian myself I am helping to establish and run a church-based project to combat hunger of school children in the school holidays through the national network, MakeLunch.  Methodologically I combine ideas of action, participation and observation to be both a researcher and participant.  Whilst the project forms an integral part of my PhD it could, and indeed does elsewhere, exist independently of any research.  This is changing the world at a very small scale already for the people involved in the project, both volunteers and children attending the lunch club in their school holidays.  As volunteers we cannot help but be changed by our experiences, both with each other, and in endeavouring to help people in need.  In turn, the children attending the lunch club, I hope, have fun during the play session with art and sports activities, and have full stomachs after the lunch itself.  This research therefore has immediate impact and change beyond academia for the people involved in the project, but as I continue my PhD and write about human action and willing in a faith context I am contributing to academic and community understanding of the role of faith based social action in responding to food poverty, hopefully improving people’s well-being and showing community care.  

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This is just one piece of research falling under the discipline of the geography of religion in the relatively short period of a three year PhD, focussing upon Christian faith and responding to food poverty.  There is therefore huge potential for research in this way to impact upon the world by combining theory, academia and practical action.  In this way the geography of religion can participate within and gain understanding of the wide range of social action undertaken by people of all religious faiths, and indeed acknowledge many people of no faith also contribute to their local communities.  At a time when in the media the headlines are full of acts of terrorism and religious extremism, it is vitally important that the positive aspects of religious faith are also acknowledged and understood to avoid inaccurate and unnecessary stereotypes.  This is a time of change for world religions.  In turn, research can impact upon the world by participating in and gaining understanding of the action of that religious change.

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