Research / Projects

Religious ambiguities on the urban scene

In what sense are people religious in the big cities around the Baltic Sea today? Recent research gives clear evidence that people in late modern societies combine seemingly incommensurable religious beliefs and practices in their everyday lives.[1] For instance, people simultaneously define themselves as both Buddhist and Christian, or describe themselves as Muslim whilst still celebrating Christian holidays. Despite of this insight, almost every research project within History of religions defines its material based on traditional denominational borders – researchers study Sunni Muslims, Vaishnava Hindus, Baptists, Wiccans, Lutherans et cetera. Of course, such demarcations are well motivated in research that deals with religious texts, institutions or authorities that uphold clear-cut borders between denominations. But, when it comes to research about religious people on a grass-roots level they are problematic. In such research, clear-cut demarcations risk to ascribe beliefs, affiliations and loyalties to people’s religiosity that simply aren’t there.

This project consists of a number of interrelated empirical and qualitative surveys that address the question of hybrid religiosity around the Baltic Sea. In order to reach the vast majority who do not fit within traditional denominational borders, we will conduct a door-to-door study in three specific neighbourhoods in Copenhagen, Helsinki, and Stockholm. This will be followed up by in-depth semi-structured interviews. By approaching contemporary religiosity in this unorthodox way, we hope to be able to draw a picture of urban religiosity around the Baltic that is thoroughly based in the experience and testimony of ordinary people

Purpose and questions

The main purpose of this project is to increase our understanding of the contemporary religious landscape around the Baltic Sea. The project aims to do so by implementing recent theoretical insights into the empirical research methodology. Apart from providing new empirical material, our hope is that this will also result in a fruitful and novel contribution to the theoretical discussion within our field. The broad research questions can be summarised as follows:

1. What strategies of meaning making, conceptualisation and everyday practice do people, who are exposed to religious diversity, employ when dealing with varying religious elements in their environment, such as value systems, worldviews and rituals?

2. What does this tell us about religiosity in the contemporary urban landscapes of Copenhagen, Helsinki and Stockholm?

3. How can recent theoretical insights concerning how individuals are affected by globalisation (often phrased in terms of glocalisation, cultural hybridity and translocational positionality) be applied methodologically within the field of religious studies?

Previous research and theory

Culture and religion have always been the result of negotiations, on both social and individual levels. In our everyday lives we constantly encounter and assimilate different, and often contradictory, experiences. In doing so, we create our way of being in society through a continuous process of evaluation, interpretation and conglomeration. In the late modern and globalised societies of today’s northern Europe, this process is especially striking, not least in urban environments where people of different cultural background live closely together. Here the rapid flow of information that new technology has made possible combines with a greater cultural heterogeneity. This makes alternatives to previously dominating worldviews and lifestyles more available than ever before.

Most individuals, it seems, have no problem with this. Combining incoherent or incommensurable ideas is something we do[AaF1] [AaF2] continuously. Meaning is not only or even primarily created on a cognitive or verbalised level. On the contrary, social, aesthetic and bodily levels of experiencing and reacting to reality are crucial for how we make our choices.[2] Human collective culture evolves in a constantly ongoing negotiation between these levels. And for individuals it is an ever present challenge to express and interpret one’s own experiences of life in ways that do not deviate too far from one’s social circumstances.

In academia, the last 50 years of theoretical development within the humanities can be described as getting rid of a static understanding of culture. Culture is developing and changing and cannot be described as divided into monolithic entities. Recent empirical research in Sweden has also shown that people’s religious beliefs and practices are even more multilayered and versatile than one has previously thought. In 2000, the now well known Kendal project started up in Great Britain. In this unique study all religious activity during one day in the city of Kendal was mapped through both qualitative and quantitative methods. In the Scandinavian context, a study similar to the Kendal project was conducted by a team of researchers in Uppsala, under the leadership of Kajsa Ahlstrand. In their study they focused on the town of Enköping. The striking results of this study is that people show extraordinary religious flexibility when speaking about their own experiences of religion.[3] This clearly shows the need for further studies on religiosity outside the main and conventionally chosen institutions. The Enköping study repeated all the parts of the Kendal study except one – namely a door-to-door survey. The present study aims to fill this gap.

The World Value Survey is another international quantitative study that points in a similar direction.[4] In a time when self-expression is getting increasingly important, people find new ways of combining religious components. In this context, religious traditions can be viewed as baskets, toolboxes, providing a multitude of different dogma, ideas, practices, symbols et cetera which are used by individuals and groups in order to express and create a modus vivendi.

Now, an important consequence of this flexible cultural situation is a certain religious ambiguity. Many scholars have argued that such an ambiguity is a prominent characteristic of late modern societies. The theoretical discussion on this matter is particularly important for the present project. We will therefore briefly highlight some of the main positions.

Within the growing field of ritual theory there is a discussion on the meaning of rituals. Already in the 1960’s, Victor Turner argued that religious rituals are multivocal. They mean different things to different people and are constantly ascribed and re-ascribed meaning depending on their context.[5] Caroline Humphrey and James Laidlaw have more recently argued along similar lines. Rituals rarely have meanings that are possible to decipher or verbalise.[6] To look for explanations in the canonised scriptures of official religious authorities might therefore lead away from a proper understanding of the world of the religious individual. Instead the individual often find her- or himself in between personal and canonised levels of meaning.

Although they do exist in the field of religious studies, theoretical debates on cultural ambiguity mainly take place on a more general scholarly arena. Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman is a prominent person in this debate. For him, the ambiguity of culture becomes apparent in the multiple identities that people live with today. Many individuals find themselves in a situation where they have to deal with being rooted in many different cultures.[7] People who are not in this way divided between worlds, still constantly have to interact with others who are. This interaction will have consequences for how individuals view themselves.

Speaking primarily about the cultural spheres of art and literature, postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha has discussed the process of migration from one cultural continuum to another. Taking a position different than Bauman, he has launched the concept of hybridity. By this he wishes to denote an identity that exists in what he calls a third space. The third space is different from the cultural arenas that it combines. It is an identity in its own right and need not necessarily be seen as the result or cause of conflict. Another important aspect of Bhabhas work is the way it ascribes agency to individuals. By describing hybrid identities as independent results of negotiations on an individual level, he also emphasises their solidity.[8]

Bhabhas theories have been very influential, but noteworthy critique of his thoughts has also been put forth. Floya Anthias, for instance, argues that Bhabha’s concept of hybridity is merely describing the reality of a privileged few – namely those who are in a position where they have the means of individual and artistic expression. By failing to conceptualise the situation of the masses, Anthias argues, Bhabha’s theory risks providing “a gloss over existing cultural hierarchies and hegemonic practices”[9]. The processes of hybridity must therefore be described and discussed in ways that also take cultural hierarchies, political projects and social stratifications into consideration. Here, hence, another ambiguity comes in, namely the analytical ambiguity between structure and agency. Anthias uses the concept of “translocational positionality” to denote this.[10]

The present project is multidisciplinary insofar as we will attempt to use the insights of Bhabha and Anthias in an analysis of the religious aspect of the individual in culture. Religiosity, hence, will be approached as a project characterised by ambiguity and pragmatism. Ambiguity, because it takes place in between perceived entities – Christianity vs. New Age; canonised tradition vs. individual expression; hierarchal structures vs. individual freedom – and pragmatism, because it needs to function practically in the economic, social, emotional and aesthetic reality of one’s life.

The relevance of the project for the academic study of religion

This project is of great empirical, theoretical and methodological relevance for our field.

Firstly, when discussing religion, and especially Christianity or Islam, the understanding of culture as a result of mixes, mergings and encounters is especially relevant and challenging. This is so because dogmatic religion, unlike most other aspects of culture, often involves what could be labelled its own theoretical apparatus. Through theology and dogma, religious institutions legitimate and incorporate certain cultural practices into a seemingly coherent whole. This superstructure often causes adherents of dogmatic religious traditions to be particularly prone to describe their religious practices and beliefs as interconnected in a congruent system. A young and religiously active pentecostal Christian, to give an example, is therefore more likely to expect his religious activities and thoughts to belong together in a coherent system than, for instance, a musician would be when discussing her musical thoughts and practices.

Furthermore, although historians of religion know that religious traditions are conglomerations of many different cultural influences, such an understanding may be problematic for both adherents of dogmatic religions and non-religious people who maintain a dogmatic view of religion. In the chosen areas of this study there exists a Christian heritage, which we expect might have led to tensions between practice and conceptualisation. To describe and discuss these tensions is one of the core ambitions of this study.

On a methodological level, this tension between conceptualisation and practice means that it is particularly challenging and complex, but also more interesting, to lift forth the category of religion in this type of cultural study. The scholar of religion cannot only concentrate on the informants’ stories and his/her own theoretical interpretation of these, s/he also needs to take into consideration the informants’ own implicit notions about religion.

A second point that motivates the project’s relevance for the field of religious studies has to do with the existential vulnerability that the postmodern condition creates. Scholars like Zygmunt Bauman and Alberto Melucci have all used the concept of loss to denote this particular characteristic of our time. It is increasingly difficult to find one’s place in a society where one is constantly forced to re-evaluate and re-build one’s identity. Baumann claims that a strong feeling of uncertainty, melancholia or loss is an inevitable result of a society that hails multitude and multiculturalism. The repudiation of strong ethnic or historical identities leads to an oblivion of one’s past that in its turn creates anxiety.[11] Melucci, in his turn, regards globalisation as the main cause of the sense of loss. The multitude of choices that are available makes it hard for individuals to know who they are, and the fact that we can never choose everything increases the feeling of loss.[12]

In this situation the religious aspect of culture is of special importance. Needless to say, religion can be many different things and have many different functions and meanings. Still, one prominent usage that religion often seem to have is to comfort, explain and provide ways of expression in times of hardship. If existential vulnerability is a part of the late modern urban landscapes that we wish to discuss, this certainly shows the relevance of this project for the study of religion.


[2] Thurfjell, David. 2006. Living Shiism: instances of ritualisation among islamist men in contemporary Iran. New York: Brill, p. 230-238.

[3] The results of the Enköping study will be published in the fall of 2007.


[5] Turner, Victor. 1969. The ritual process: structure and anti-structure. Chicago; Aldine Publishing Company.

[6] Humphrey, Caroline and James Laidlaw. 1994. The archetypal actions of ritual: a theory of ritual illustrated by the Jain rite of worship; p. 263. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[7] Bauman, Z. 1997. “The making and unmaking of strangers" in P. Werbner and T. Modood (eds.) Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi-Cultural Identities and the Politics of Anti-Racism. London: Zed Books. p. 46-58.

[8] Bhabha, Homi K. 2004. The Location of Culture. Oxon: Routledge Classics.

Bhabha, Homi K. 2002. “Det tredje rummet” in Catharina Eriksson, Maria Eriksson Baaz, and Håkan Thörn (eds.), Globaliseringens kulturer – den postkoloniala paradoxen, rasismen och det mångkulturella samhället; p. 283-293. Nora: Nya Doxa.

[9] Anthias, F. 2001. “New Hybridities, Old Concepts: the Limits of ‘Culture’”. Ethnic and Racial Studies, p. 619. Vol. 24, No. 4, p. 619-641.

[10] Anthias, F. 2001. “New Hybridities, Old Concepts: the Limits of ‘Culture’”. Ethnic and Racial Studies, p. 633-635.. Vol. 24, No. 4, p. 619-641.

[11] Bauman, Z. 1997. “The making and unmaking of strangers" in P. Werbner and T. Modood (eds.) Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi-Cultural Identities and the Politics of Anti-Racism. p. 50ff. London: Zed Books. p. 46-58.

[12] Melucci, Alberto. 1997. “Identity and Difference in a Globalized World” in P. Werbner and T. Modood (eds.) Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi-Cultural Identities and the Politics of Anti-Racism. London: Zed Books. p. 58-70.


This thesis aims at contributing to a critical discussion on the supposedly far-reaching secularity of Sweden on the one hand, and on the incongruence and inconsistency of lived religion on the other. At the center are people referred to as semi-secular Swedes – a group that is often neglected in the study of religion. These people do not go to church or get involved in any other alternative organized spiritual activities, neither are they actively opposed to religion or entirely indifferent to it. Most of them describe the ways they are – or are not – religious as in line with the majority patterns in Swedish society.The study is qualitative in method and the material has been gathered through interviews and a questionnaire. It offers a close reading of 28 semi-secular Swedes’ ways of talking about and relating to religion, particularly in reference to their everyday lives and their own experiences, and it analyzes the material with a focus on incongruences.By exploring how the term religion is employed vernacularly by the respondents, the study pinpoints one particular feature in the material, namely simultaneity. The concept of simultaneity is descriptive and puts emphasis on a ‘both and’ approach in (1) the way the respondents ascribe meaning to the term religion, (2) how they talk about themselves in relation to different religious designations, and (3) how they interpret experiences that they single out as ‘out-of-the-ordinary’. These simultaneities are explained and theorized through analyses focusing on intersubjective and discursive processes.In relation to theorizing on religion and religious people this study offers empirical material that nuance a dichotomous understanding of ‘the religious’ and ‘the secular’. In relation to methodology it is argued that the salience of simultaneity in the material shows that when patterns of religiosity among semi-secular Swedes are studied there is a need to be attentive to expressions of complexity, contradiction and incongruity.

AuthorPublishing yearSubject

David Thurfjell

Ann af Burén

Research linked to the Baltic region and Eastern Europe



School of Historical and Contemporary Studies
Comparative Religion

Research area for doctoral studies


DIN 2011, 3-4 : 7-26.

AuthorPublishing yearSubject
David Thurfjell

Research linked to the Baltic region and Eastern Europe



School of Historical and Contemporary Studies
Comparative Religion

Research area for doctoral studies

Historical Studies



Project Manager

David Thurfjell
Professor, Professor
School of Historical and Contemporary Studies

People linked to the project

Ann af Burén
Senior Lecturer, PhD
School of Historical and Contemporary Studies

More information

Project start: 2010
Project end: 2015

Financier: Östersjöstiftelsen

Research linked to the Baltic Sea region and Eastern Europe: Yes

Information på svenska

Subjects to which the project is linked

School/centre to which the project is linked