Excluded urban youth and religious discourse in the translocal city

Over the last decade British government social policy has emphasised the relationship between social inclusion and community cohesion, social exclusion and anti-social behaviour amongst urban youth and the potentially progressive role of religion in the public sphere as a generator of bridging social capital.

Debate in the wake of the New Labour launch of its ‘Respect’ agenda in 2005, the 7/7 bombings in London and increased levels of knife crime has appeared to express a crisis narrative in relation to engagement with urban youth in Britain. This narrative has emphasised social exclusion and political, social and religious disaffection amongst older teenagers and young adults, particularly in inner-city areas. Such crisis narratives have arguably underplayed the involvement of excluded young people in political and community activism, as well as their engagement with questions of religious and spiritual meaning.

Project aims

  • To develop an in depth ethnographic action-research project alongside three targeted youth projects working with socially excluded urban youth in Birmingham.
  • To explore the relationship between experiences of social exclusion and the use of religious discourse by urban youth.
  • To examine the capacity of such youth projects to facilitate the development of bridging social capital.
  • To develop in partnership with urban youth fieldwork-partners a range of long term grass-roots initiatives aimed at fostering dialogue between different groups of urban youth, empowerment and new forms of self-expression.
  • To set this in an international context through an exploration of comparable projects in New York and draw upon international good practice in the field of urban youth dialogue and transformative Urban Faith Education.

Foundational values

This project will strive to exemplify evidence-based research and rigorous academic discourse. We do not however make any claim to neutral analysis. Together with Gutierrez (1973), Freire (1998) and Pattison (1997) we suggest that any claim to value-free reflection is ultimately flawed.

Within recent decades varying expressions of contextual theology have defended values-driven theological reflection. The Urban Liberation Theologian Kenneth Leech (1997, 50) summarises the theological perspective adopted by this research project, ‘The only theology to which I am committed is one which is part of the current of liberation….If theology does not help to liberate human beings…it helps to oppress them.’

It is for this reason that our fieldwork will be guided by the methodological approach articulated within Community-based Action Research which seeks to engage people as active subjects in a dialogical process of change-oriented research (Stringer, 1998). This theological and methodological stance will be aligned with the liberative educational model pioneered by Freire (1972 and 1998) whereby education is seen as a dialogical process through which those who are oppressed become conscious of the causes of their oppression and are empowered to enact liberative praxis in their own lives and communities.

Key areas of exploration and analysis

  • ‘Theorising urban youth’
  • Social exclusion
  • Religious discourse in a ‘post-religious’ century
  • Religion and youth
  • Social/spiritual capital

Project summary

This interdisciplinary project will draw on youth studies, discourse analysis, ethnography, cultural studies and contextual theology to analyse the scope and nature of the engagement between religion and excluded youth by examining the nature and function of the religious discourses used by young people and the capacity of faith-based projects to use these discourses to generate bridging social capital.

It will provide an interface between two larger research projects. The first being a long-term project aimed at exploring the use and meaning of religious discourses within the urban environment and the second, funded in part by the Methodist Church, being an in depth action-research project aimed at increasing the involvement of excluded urban youth within the city of Birmingham and the development of a model of contextual theology that arises from the experience of excluded urban youth.

The work of the project will be placed in an international context, seeking to compare insights gained from the research in Birmingham with similar faith-based urban youth projects in New York, USA. The Principle Investigator has a close link with the Ecologies of Learning Project who work together with faith communities and conduct research on the impact of these communities in the greater New York area making a transatlantic comparative research project viable.

Dialogue and collaborative engagement

Throughout the project the principle of dialogue and collaborative engagement will be central. Due to its action-orientation the project will seek to facilitate a dialogue revolving around the experience of urban youth and its relationship to identity and religious faith at five levels: between different groups of urban youth; between urban youth and researchers; between urban youth and educational services and political authorities; between urban youth and urban faith communities and within the academy.


It is anticipated that the project will have a wide range of outcomes that reflect this commitment to dialogue including three articles in peer reviewed journals by the Principal Investigator and the Research Fellow, Reports for Birmingham City Council aimed at policy development and the Faith Leaders Group together with recommendations for future work, an international conference on ‘Social Exclusion and Faith Amongst Urban Youth’, the development of a DVD/CD Rom resource for citizenship courses at school/college [Key Stage 4], the establishment of an ‘Urban Theology in Action’ Web Site and an Urban Theology Journal, the development of a Development of Diploma in Urban Faith Studies aimed at urban faith and community groups and the establishment of an ongoing forum for ‘Urban Youth Dialogue’.

Beyond the time-frame of the project it is intended to publish a book: ‘Voices from Below: Social Exclusion and Faith amongst Urban Youth in the Twenty-First Century’.  

Project lead

Further information