Researcher of the Month – January 2018, Hollie Gowan

Hollie Gowan is the new Research Intern for the Centre of Religion and Public Life. She is jointly supervised by Prof. Emma Tomalin (PRHS) and Dr. Caroline Fielder (EAS) and her PhD research is funded by the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities. Her research interests cover the intersections between religion, gender and development in the contemporary Chinese context.

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

 After completing my undergraduate degree – a joint honours in Sociology and Theology & Religious Studies at Leeds Uni –, I trained for my PGCE in Secondary Education at Cambridge. I then spent two years working as a Religion, Philosophy & Ethics teacher in a mixed-secondary Academy in South Lincolnshire. Whist there, I completed my ME.d in Educational Research and Practice where I examined how adolescents develop values. All of this experience came together to help me see research, and the dissemination of it, as what I wanted to do in life.

IMG_0278I was able to come back to study in Leeds thanks to a WRoCAH Scholarship, which I highly recommend to anyone seeking to do a PhD – they are an incredibly supportive network. I wanted to come back to Leeds University because of the impression it had left on me as an undergraduate. My lecturers were all specialists in their fields with current research projects and experiences to draw from. I wanted to be part of this research culture where ideas could be shared and collaborations could be made – such as the work the CRPL is doing. However, coming back was also because it meant I could work with the wonderful Prof. Emma Tomalin (PRHS) again, and meet the amazing Dr. Caroline Fielder (EAS). My PhD journey has not been easy, but I am grateful to both for helping me get to where I am now, including my new role as CRPL Research Intern.

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

 It is an understatement when I say that my mother is my inspiration to do research. She has never been to China nor been in academia. However, what she has done is show immense strength in the face of adversity and always encouraged my love of reading. It is because of her that I read the words of female authors from a young age and know that when I grew up, I wanted to do the same. I wanted to have a voice in research and it was my mother that gave me the confidence to aim for each next step of my academic path.

When it comes to what sparked my particular research interest, it was when my grandfather gave me a book on Chinese philosophy. From there, I read every piece of historical fiction I could on the women in China’s past. These fictional stories created worlds for me to experience a country I had never been to but wanted to know everything about. This fascination has driven my research topics throughout my undergrad and masters and has finally opened up the opportunity to take it further at doctoral level.

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

 I am in the third-year of my PhD, but I still remember the first time I sat down to map out a possible topic. I penned the words ‘gender’, ‘religion’, and ‘China’ onto the page. All three have a million possible connections and avenues that could be explored. However, I knew that any research I undertook in my life would have these three words at the core of what I was doing.

My doctoral thesis focuses on these three words by examining the women who work for Religiously-Inspired Charitable Organisations in China as they search for meaning and social change in contemporary China. Even this still feels too broad in scope and I am currently sifting through my data to find a narrower focus. However, I had that research moment, that moment of clarity where I realised my research was primarily concerned with happiness and what that means to the women I have come into contact with.

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

My research hopes to examine the role of religion in public life by exploring the role of Religiously-Inspired Charitable Organisations (RICOs) in China. The relationship between religion and China’s public life is a complicated, and often sensitive, topic. By exploring the work of RICOs, I am not only able to research first-hand how religion plays a part in the lives of their staff and volunteers, but also the impact they are having on China’s development. These organisations are staffed mainly by women and creates a unique insight into how women are negotiating their beliefs, how they choose to practice and the change they are hoping to create. Having only recently come back from my fieldwork, it seems that the pursuit of xingfu – happiness – is the catalyst for this negotiation and I look forward to exploring this further in the coming months.

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