Religious faith, space and diasporic communities in East London: 1880-present

Project description

By analysing the contested histories of faith-based civil-society institutions in the East End of London from the late nineteenth century to the present, we enhanced understanding of the impact of faith-based community organizations on diaspora inclusion and exclusion in a world city.

Standard views of migration and diaspora often ignore complex and multivalent affects of belonging, identification and faith – especially the ways in which journeys are rarely simply in one direction. Sometimes such journeys remain within traditions, and sometimes take people across boundaries of nation, denomination or ethnicity. We challenged the hegemony of such conventional markers of identity, and teased out the complexity of diasporic experience.

We focused on Christianity, Judaism and Islam and our chronological span was the ‘long twentieth century’ – from the late Victorian period to the present.

Key research questions

  1. What are the different faith models, models of associational politics, forms of family life, practices of spatiality, lines of connectivity and modes of communication within and across the three faiths? The thesis to be tested is that these differences do not map simply on to the faiths, but can sometimes work within and sometimes across them; sometimes following diasporic routes, sometimes departing from them.
  2. How have different waves of migration responded differently? And how have they been shaped by the shift from an officially monocultural Christian Britain to an officially multicultural secular Britain? Exploring these continuities and contrasts will illuminate both the diasporic communities and shifts in wider society.


Our sites included formal places of worship, associational spaces and domestic spaces. We used a combination of documentary archival research, oral history interviews, mapping techniques, visual methods and ethnography. We tracked how movements, individuals, faiths and communities move through and between spaces, sometimes along diasporic routes and sometimes against the grain of diasporic routes.

We developed a programme of community engagement in partnership with innovative interfaith and community cohesion work already going on in the area, with which the research team already had extensive contact. We learned from the responses as we fed our findings back to the communities we worked with - both our accounts of their own histories, but also our comparative analysis of their neighbours’ histories. This helped in understanding continuities and discontinuities, comparisons and contrasts. We created opportunities for interfaith and intercultural dialogue. We aimed to use drama-based methods and photography as using visual and oral research methods can generate research data that is vivid and meaningful for participants and greatly facilitates this sort of engagement work.

Hanbury St, Whitechapel, East London. Photograph: Ben Gidley

Project lead

Jane Garnett, Ben Gidley, Alana Harris & Michael Keith, Faculty of History and Centre on Migration, Policy and Society

Research assistants

Nazneen Ahmed and Eve Colpus

Project-related outputs

> Journal articles
> Books and chapters
> Conferences, workshops
> Media Contributions