Dr Melanie Prideaux is Associate Professor of Religious Studies 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?
My research journey began when I was an RE teacher. I hadn’t studied Islam as part of my undergraduate degree so I returned to study an MA at Leeds University Islamic Studies to fill that gap. I thought I was on a short break from teaching and sometimes I think I still am… I enjoyed the MA, especially fieldwork, thinking about relations between different religious groups in local communities (not just in the writings of religious leaders and academics). I was then lucky enough to get funding to do a part-time PhD looking at Muslim-Christin relations in Beeston. My research interests have become a bit more diverse since then and I have been able to work on a range of areas. In pedagogy, I am particularly interested in undergraduate students as field researchers, and the ethical implications of their work. In terms of religion I always focus on the local – the more local the better! In fact, one of my projects at the moment is looking at a visit by French Gypsy Pentecostal preachers to the University library in the 1960s… so really very local. I also still do work relating my doctorate looking at interfaith and multifaith activity – and Leeds is a fantastic place to be doing that!
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
My interests are a little diverse so this isn’t easy to answer. However, my interest in studying religion in locality, and therefore in fieldwork method, is very much shaped by the Community Religions Project (CRP) including the undergraduate student projects and the other research that have emerged from it over recent decades. After my undergraduate degree, which didn’t really deal with much beyond ‘dead white guys’, and the exotic ‘other’, it was such a breath of fresh air to start thinking about religion right in front of me, rather than in dusty tomes or in places I was very unlikely to visit. It also helped me make more sense of how to teach RE in secondary schools (although I’ve not gone back to it) and continues to shape how I think about teaching our undergraduates.
What are you currently, or about to start, working on?
As previously mentioned, the Gypsy Pentecostalism project is part of a bigger project to research the ‘Light and Life’ church that I am currently working on, despite having given up on it several times over the past few years! There has been a Pentecostal revival happening among Gypsy/Traveller communities for the best part of 50 years but it is fairly invisible. Building good, trusting, relationships with a marginalised community is demanding but there is, I think, a lot of really interesting and important information and reflection to emerge from looking at the experience of this community; including how religion is part of that experience, and how that religious dimension is invisible to the outside world. That tells us a lot about religion and about society – not just about the particular community. I’m hoping this initial more archival project, which I’m optimistic community members will get involved in, will lead to more work with the Leeds Gypsy/Traveller community.
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 projects deal, quite explicitly, with religion in local public life. They are about public expressions of religion, how religion does or does not engage with public bodies and how religions engage with one another in society.
I’m concerned with things that might make an immediate difference to how people think about religion, how public bodies engage with religion and how religious groups and people engage with public bodies. The diverse projects I get involved in all share that common thread, though the impact of them may be much less significant than I had hoped. My pedagogic concerns are squarely with how students go about researching religion in public life; why it matters that they do, and what the challenges are in doing so. I feel strongly that students, and indeed we as researchers, need to develop reciprocal relationships with those we research, because the type of research I am most interested in has fairly immediate real world impacts and implications. A student interviewing someone is taking something valuable from that person – time. Giving something in return such as sharing the report or giving a public presentation is pretty basic way of giving something back to the participant and honouring the gift of their time that has been shared. This is more immediate when the people you are interviewing are people you might see any time because you share the same public space with them!