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Psychosocial components of ethical monotheism

About the project

At a time when questions of religious tolerance and the place of religious ethics are of growing concern, socially, politically and psychologically, this project explores the lived realities of the major monotheistic faiths in the UK. We ask how the social and ethical values of Jewish, Islamic and Christian traditions take shape within contemporary Britain, how they reflect or resist the various external and internal pressures on these communities. We explore the many different forms that religious ethics can take, and identification with and dissension from value systems within everyday life. In contrast to discussions that are set at the level of policing or that focus on generalised ideas about monotheistic religions, we use ethnographic and psychosocial research methods to develop a rich understanding of how ethical teachings are communicated and negotiated within contemporary social life.


Professor Stephen Frosh

  • Professor Stephen Frosh is leading this project. He has written widely on psychosocial studies and on religion and Jewish identities. His most recent books include Hauntings: Psychoanalysis and Ghostly Transmissions, which explores intergenerational and transpersonal formations of identity and trauma. He has written several papers relevant to this project, most recently Beyond Recognition (Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, 20, 379-394, 2015) and Neurotic and Paranoid Citizens (in J. Walsh (ed) Narcissism, Melancholia and the Subject of Community. London: Palgrave, forthcoming).

Dr Ruth Sheldon

  • Dr Ruth Sheldon is a postdoctoral researcher working on this project. She has a PhD in Sociology from the University of Kent and a book recently published in Manchester University Press’ New Ethnographies series, Tragic Encounters and Ordinary Ethics: The Palestine-Israel Conflict in British Universities. Her research interests include the sociology of religion and specifically the study of ‘lived religion’, political theology, the anthropology of ethics, ethnographic and psychosocial research methods.

Lenita Törning

  • Lenita Törning is a PhD student in the Department of Psychosocial Studies. She has an MA in Religion in Peace and Conflict from Uppsala University and a BSc with a major in International Relations from the University of Gothenburg. Her research interests include young people’s religiosity, European Islam, religion in security politics, religious subjectivity, religious emotion and affect, and faith-based social engagement.

Dr Ben Gidley

  • Dr Ben Gidley is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychosocial Studies. His publications include a book on the British Jewish Community, Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today (with Keith Kahn-Harris), and a co-edited collection on Ethnography, Diversity and Urban Space. He brings his interests in ethnographic methods, multiculturalism and contemporary urban communities to bear on our work.

Our research

Ethical neighbours: monotheistic encounters in urban life

  • This research is exploring the ethical and political lives of Jewish, Christian and Muslim neighbours in Hackney, as they relate to each other and within the wider moral, political and secular landscape. Focusing on inter- and intra-religious relations within a diverse locality, this ethnographic approach is opening up an in-depth understanding of the complexity and heterogeneity of communities that is rarely achieved in studies of interfaith relations. The study focuses on a theme with both theological and psychosocial significance by asking how the relationship to the neighbour is understood, communicated and experienced amongst Jews, Muslims and Christians in a diverse urban locality. We are interested in the neighbour as a key theological figure within monotheism, and in neighbouring as an everyday reality of urban life. The research examines how we treat neighbours of different kinds, and what relation this has to the famous ‘love your neighbour’ injunction of Christianity, and its different variants in Judaism and Islam.
  • Initial exploratory fieldwork for this project began in spring of 2015 and the main phase was conducted between December 2015 and September 2017. During this time, the research explored how lived monotheistic ethics was taking shape within a dramatically changing political context, including the repeated terrorist attacks in Europe, the ongoing repercussions of the referendum vote for ‘Brexit’, the election of Donald Trump in the US presidential elections, and the apparent rise of right-wing movements in other European contexts. The fieldwork has offered an important window into the ways in which these seismic political events are perceived and experienced by members of monotheistic communities and how increasingly pressing ethical questions about belonging, polarisation, xenophobia, racism and diversity are negotiated on the ground.
  • As the fieldwork developed, the project came to focus particularly on inter- and intra- religious, and religious-secular relations from the perspective of the various Jewish communities in Hackney and so has engaged with cohabiting liberal, modern orthodox, strictly orthodox (Haredi), non-practicing, Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews living in the locality. The rationale for approaching monotheistic ethics from Jewish perspectives is both theoretical and methodological. In contrast to studies of interfaith relations, which have necessarily struggled to attend to the internal heterogeneity of faith groups, and which have often begun from an implicitly Christian normative framework, this project is exploring how informal relations of Jewish / non-Jewish neighbours are imagined, expressed and contested between communities that are distinctly situated in relation to the religiously diverse secular-Christian landscape of post-Brexit-vote Britain. Many of these Jewish communities have rarely been the subject of qualitative research, and while the strictly orthodox Jewish population is rapidly growing in Britain, they are increasingly represented as ‘marginal’ and ‘hard-to-reach’ by policymakers. Therefore, drawing on an ethnographic methodology has taken us deeper into Jewish communities, which may appear homogenous from the outside, we have explored how they are situated in complex relations with each other and with their non-Jewish neighbours. The fieldwork has included repeated participant observation within various religious, educational, welfare, neighbourhood and family settings, ranging from an orthodox Jewish children’s centre to liberal and orthodox study groups, to synagogue services and family meals. The ethnographic fieldwork is following members of these communities in their engagements with various non-Jewish neighbours, tracing personal and professional encounters, negotiations of shared public spaces, local festivals, interfaith initiatives, anti-racist activist mobilisations, local neighbourhood forums, health, welfare and charitable initiatives. In addition to more informal conversations, in-depth interviews have been recorded with members of these communities exploring their long-term experiences of participating in religious and secular life within the locality and relations between neighbours over time.
  • A key early finding of this research is that theological and social fault lines are often located in overlooked intra- as opposed to inter- religious relations, as well as in the challenge that some religious communities pose to a dominant yet taken-for-granted 'secular'/liberal morality. In addition, an emerging insight is that everyday neighbourly relations within such a religiously diverse setting are sites of intense hostility but also of surprising intimacy and connection across seemingly rigid boundaries. The study is exploring how socio-economic conditions, political events, communal and personal histories and the material landscape of the neighbourhood shape these dynamics, bringing neighbours into both supportive and conflictual relations, which also informs their interpretations of their theological commitments.
  • We are currently writing up the findings of this research, with a number of journal articles and book chapters under review (see the publications section below for further details). A book project is currently in progress, provisionally entitled Ethical Neighbours: Jewish Encounters in the Secular City.

Being, becoming and belonging: Young people's reflections and negotiations of ethical teachings in Christianity, Judaism and Islam

  • As the working title indicates, this doctoral research project is interested in young people's experiences of interfaith activism in the UK and particularly the impact(s) being involved in interfaith youth projects/organisations might have on young people's religious, social, ethical and political identities. In the recent decade there has a growth in both academic and policy interests in interfaith projects as means to bring people together and build cohesive communities. Still, we have very little knowledge about the impact being involved in these projects might have on people and particularly young people who are fairly recent participants in this kind of projects. This is what this doctoral project aims to explore.
  • In particular, I would like to know how the young people themselves describe their interfaith activism, how they got involved and why it is important to them. I am also interested in the role their religion play in their interfaith work, if there are any religious narratives and ethical teachings they are particularly inspired by, and also the role of their congregations and religious communities in their interest of becoming interested in interfaith work. Lastly, I would like to know if they think their interfaith activism has had any impact on their everyday lives – for example, in school/university/work settings, family and peer relationships, community and neighbour relations. Important to note is that what I am interested in is the young people's own stories and experience of interfaith youth work – not finding 'true' answers or to judge whether interfaith projects are successful or not.
  • This doctoral project started in September 2015 and during the first year the theoretical foundation has been mapped out. Since November 2016 I have started the empirical phase and looking for interfaith youth projects/organisations to include in the research. In the next few months I will carry out in-depth qualitative interviews with young people who are active in interfaith youth projects. In addition to this I will also conduct interviews with gate-keepers (e.g. interfaith youth coordinators, youth leaders, faith leaders) who are working with this kind of projects, do observations and attend interfaith events aimed at young people, and analyse policy documents relevant for these projects in order to provide a context for the young people's experiences.

Presentation of findings


  • Ruth Sheldon, 'The ethics of neighbouring: a marginal perspective’, British Sociological Association Sociology of Religion Annual Conference, Leeds University, July 2017.
  • Ruth Sheldon, ‘Articulating the value of precarious buildings’, Spaces for Secular Faith Symposium, UEA, June 2017.
  • Ruth Sheldon ‘Israel, the ethnographer’, Ethnographic Encounters Symposium, Birkbeck, University of London, February 2017.


  • Ben Gidley, Laïcité & community” PSL-University of Cambridge exchange Religions, action sociale et politiques urbaines (locale): Paris et Londres, CNRS Paris, March 2016.
  • Ruth Sheldon, ‘Jewish Ethnography and Questions of Naming’, Religious Studies Seminar, University of Kent, March 2016.
  • Lenita Törning, 'A theoretical overview of the role of religious socialisation and beliefs in the lives of young people - and how it can be used in research', Religion, Politics and Society seminar, King's College London, March 2016.
  • Ruth Sheldon, ‘The Good as Method’, symposium entitled ‘Where is the Good in the World?’, University of Kent, May 2016.
  • Ruth Sheldon, ‘Liberalism, Orthodox Judaism and Gender Relations’ workshop on ‘Political and Religious Moderation’, Warwick University, June 2016.
  • Ruth Sheldon, ‘Jewish Maternal Ethics’, British Sociological Association (BSA) Sociology of Religion Conference, Lancaster University, July 2016.
  • Ruth Sheldon, ‘Surface and Depth in the Anthropology of Ethics’, Department of Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck, November 2016.
  • Lenita Törning, 'A psychosocial approach to the study of young people's interfaith activism', Religion, Politics and Society seminar, King's College London, December 2016.
  • Lenita Törning, 'Young people's experiences of interfaith youth projects in the UK – an update of a research project', Department of Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck, December 2016.


  • Ruth Sheldon, ‘Jewish Ethnography and the Sociology of Religion’, Sociology of Religion Seminar, Kings College, February 2015.
  • Ben Gidley, Religious Faith, Changing Patterns of Globalisation and Diasporic Belonging: Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Transnational Politics in East London”, CIRIS, Cambridge University, November 2015.

Linked publications

Journal articles

  • Ruth Sheldon with Katherine Robinson (under review) 'Narrating loss: ethnographic witnessing and community buildings.'
  • Ruth Sheldon (under review) 'On learning from the margins: Jewish nonreligious grammars within a secular-Protestant landscape', Secularism and Nonreligion, invited contribution, special issue on methods.
  • Stephen Frosh and Ruth Sheldon (under review) 'Transmission, relationality, ethnography'.
  • Ben Gidley with Nazneen Ahmed et al. 'Shifting markers of identity in East London's diasporic religious spaces', Ethnic and Racial Studies 39,2 (2016).
  • Stephen Frosh ‘Beyond Recognition’, Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, 20, 379-394, (2015).

Book chapters

  • Ruth Sheldon (under review) 'On wearing a skirt: surface and depth in the anthropology of ethics'.
  • Stephen Frosh, 'Neurotic and Paranoid Citizens' (in J. Walsh (ed) Narcissism, Melancholia and the Subject of Community. London: Palgrave (forthcoming).
  • Ben Gidley with Nasar Meer, “Communities and Identity”, in Yousef Meri, ed, Routledge Handbook Of Muslim-Jewish Relations, New York: Routledge (2016, French and Arabic editions to follow).
  • Ben Gidley with Nazneen Ahmed et al, "Historicising diaspora spaces: performing faith, race and place in London's East End", in Jane Garnett, ed, Religion in Diaspora: Cultures of Citizenship, London: Palgrave (2015).
  • Ben Gidley with Ole Jensen, “’They’ve got their wine bars; we’ve got our pubs’: Housing, diversity and community in two South London neighbourhoods”, in Ferruccio Pastore, ed, Concordia Discors: Living Together in the European City, Berlin: Springer (2016).
  • Ben Gidley, “Conflicto y convivencia en los barrios urbanos diversos de Europa: reintroducir los derechos humanos y la justicia social en el debate sobre la integración”, in Ángeles Solanes Corella, ed, Diversidad Cultural y Conflictos en la Unión Europea. Implicaciones Jurídicopolíticas, Valencia: Tirant lo Blanch (2016).
  • Ben Gidley, "Cultures of translation: East London, diaspora space and an imagined cosmopolitan tradition", in Nando Sigona et al, eds, Diasporas Reimagined: Spaces, Practices and Belonging, Oxford: IMI (2015).


  • Ben Gidley, Mainstreaming In Practice: The Efficiencies and Deficiencies of Mainstreaming Migrant Integration, Rotterdam: Erasmus University (2015).

Project events

Ethics and the Neighbour Symposium, Birkbeck Institute for Social Research, June 4th 2018

  • At this time of growing right-wing populism, fears of 'terror' and antagonism toward religious and ethnic 'others' across Europe, questions of how neighbours live together across lines of difference are a pressing public concern. This one-day symposium will bring together scholars from different disciplinary perspectives, in order to explore how everyday relationships between proximate individuals and groups are negotiated within different contexts, and to ask what ethnographic, theological and theoretical approaches are available for understanding and re-imagining neighbourly ethics within the current age of 'anxious politics'.
  • In addition to the project team, speakers will include: Professor Veena Das (John Hopkins University), Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge (UEA), Dr Anna Rowlands (Durham University), Dr Anna Strhan (University of York), Dr Anick Volleburgh (Radboud Universit), Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (University College London), Dr David Henig (University of Kent), Dr Silvia Posocco (Birkbeck).

Roundtables on faith, belief and belonging in London, Birkbeck, May-June 2018. Hosted by the Department of Psychosocial Studies in collaboration with the Faith and Belief Forum (formerly 3FF)

  • The Faith & Belief Forum (formerly 3FF) and the Department of Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck, University of London are hosting a series of roundtables on addressing barriers to belonging for Londoners from different faiths and beliefs. The roundtables will bring together local organisations, academics and policy experts 1) to understand better the issues and their impact on local communities, and 2) to share good practice for local initiatives working for social inclusion and belonging. The presentations in the roundtables will be shared as podcasts and will inform a series of briefing papers to be released later in 2018. ​The roundtables will address the following themes:
  • 1.) Hate crime, faith and belonging, 17th May 2018. Hate crime represents a violent message of exclusion. Faith and belief groups and minorities in London are increasingly the targets of hate crime. We want to understand the causes of the rise in hate crime, its impact on faith and belief communities in London, and how local organisations work to reduce hate crime and to support groups and individuals affected by hate crime.
  • 2.) Faith, belief, and inclusion, 2nd June 2018. Belonging involves all aspects of a person’s identity. Londoners from different faiths and beliefs can be excluded due to other aspects of their identities. We want to understand the intersection and tensions involved in including different aspects of identity (religion and belief, as well as ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, age and ability) and to shine a light on what gets excluded when we talk about inclusion. We will also provide case studies of local groups working for inclusion in ways that connect our multiple aspects of identity.
  • 3.) The role of media in faith, belief and belonging, 26th June 2018. Traditional and social media play a crucial role in giving people from different faiths and beliefs a sense of belonging in London. We want to highlight cases of media coverage which increase social tension and dampen a sense of belonging, and to share case studies of positive engagement between local faith communities and traditional and social media.

The Department of Psychosocial Studies is an Institutional Founding Sponsor of the Association for Psychosocial Studies, the learned society established in 2014 to promote the development of the field.