Researcher of the Month – November 2018, Dr Ben Kirby

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

My undergraduate degree was in Theology. A few years after graduating, I had an urge to develop my interest in religion in a more social-scientific direction, so in 2012 I came to Leeds to do an MA in Religion and Public Life. I was really inspired by the MA programme, and with the encouragement of Emma [Tomalin] and Adriaan [van Klinken] (who would become my supervisors) I embarked on a PhD at Leeds. At the outset of my doctoral project I was interested in exploring two general subject areas, both of which relate to African countries: the first was the state of Christian-Muslim relations in Kenya and Tanzania (where I’d recently spent a couple of months visiting friends across the region), and the second was the rapid growth of Pentecostal Christianity across the African continent and beyond (a research interest which was reinforced when Adriaan joined the School). Early on in my doctoral research, I got the opportunity to take up a visiting research fellowship at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and I used it to spend a few months conducting fieldwork with Nigerian-led Pentecostal churches in Hong Kong. This wasn’t directly related to my primary project which (would be focused on East Africa), but the experience got me thinking about urban religion as a frame for my research. When I arrived in Dar es Salaam (in Tanzania) and the central market district where I’d intended to begin my research, I realised that a lot of my methodological assumptions had been shaped by a paradigm that is characteristic of research on Pentecostalism, and that these were actually totally inadequate to this Muslim-majority neighbourhood. I became fixated with overcoming these methodological challenges, as well as the vibrant life of the neighbourhood itself, and ended up spending about fifteen months conducting an ethnography of the district. The eventual focus of my research was on Muslim activism amid everyday cultural practices. The shift in the way that I frame my research focus (from “Christian-Muslim relations” to “Muslim activism”) does reveal a bit about my experience of living alongside my research collaborators in Dar es Salaam.Once I had written up my thesis and completed my viva examination, I put the project to one side for a year. I spent this period working for a polling company in Westminster; a very different experience of research, and one that has taught me a lot about how to design research, how to communicate findings to non-academic audiences, and how to work with quantitative methods – all stuff I was less confident about before. I’m now back at Leeds to do a three year postdoctoral fellowship funded by the British Academy, which I’m incredibly excited about. I’ll be returning to my PhD project as well as exploring some new avenues of research. I’m very keen to reconnect with CRPL people old and new – so do hit me up (if I don’t first!).

 

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

 I’m extremely passionate about African cities. For a long time, I was doing research incities like Dar es Salaam and Mombasa, but it had never occurred to me to think about them as much more than backdrops to the lives of their inhabitants. Looking back, it’s pretty odd that I didn’t connect the dots, as I’ve been interested in British cities and European urban design since my undergraduate days. Anyway, what changed is that I came across the work of AbdouMaliq Simone, Jennifer Robinson, Edgar Pieterse, and other postcolonial urban theorists while I was doing my fieldwork. This literature really spoke powerfully to the everyday realities that I was encountering in Dar es Salaam alongside my research collaborators. It completely transformed the way that I think about urban religion, as well as the role that cities play in my research. Right now, I see myself as an urban anthropologist interested in the lives and projects of African Muslims.

 

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

 I have some early plans for a new project that will involve fieldwork next year, but all of my immediate tasks expand on my PhD project: dismantling my thesis and turning it into a series of journal articles, and then putting it back together again as a book manuscript and publication proposal. The very first thing that I did on returning was to read my thesis with fresh eyes and pull out a series of “headline findings”. I developed each of these into single-sentence framing questions and narratives, and then shared this shortlist with several friends and research collaborators. They identified the narratives and questions that they found most engaging. Rationalising the process of dismantling my thesis has actually been very useful: not only has it helped me to identify the insights most deserving of further elaboration, it’s also given me an opportunity to think strategically about how to avoid re-using findings across different research outputs, as well as how to disseminate my research to various relevant disciplinary audiences, e.g. African studies, religious studies and urban studies.

 

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

One major starting point for my research is to examine the ordinary strategies that people use to navigate everyday life in Dar es Salaam, and particularly the urban majority who are exposed to heightened conditions of precarity and uncertainty. My argument is very simple: everyday ways of “being religious” and “doing religion” deserve to be counted among these strategies. For instance, my research in Tanzania reveals that certain arts of “being Muslim” help people to secure livelihood and protection in a challenging urban environment, while others enable people to push back against the indignities of social inequality – and sometimes these different strategies conflict with one another. I’m committed to building an account of Muslim activism and religious politics in Tanzania that addresses these facets of people’s everyday lives, as well as the broader dynamics of urbanisation that they are entangled with. I’m taking this in two broad directions. First, I’m interested in how these dynamics reciprocally shape patterns of urban development in Dar es Salaam, such as its built environment and street cultures – often in ways that urban planners do not anticipate or acknowledge. Second, by attending closely to the lives and outlooks of myresearch collaborators, I want to disrupt prevailing impressions of Tanzania as an exemplary site of religious “harmony”. I have no desire to replace these impressions with others that frame the country as site of religious disharmony. On the contrary, I want to problematise the very terms of “conflict”, “tension”, and “peace” which structure commentary around religious politics in African countries. As a result, I hope that I can develop a more nuanced framework for research into the future of Muslim activism and religious politics in Tanzania and beyond.

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