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Investigating the Religious Identity Formation of Young People in Mixed-Faith Families

Funding: Arts and Humanities Research Council
Amount: £158,000
Duration: 2006-2009
Researchers: Professor Eleanor Nesbitt; Dr Elisabeth Arweck; Professor Robert Jackson

Growing up in a Mixed-Faith Family

The three-year project ‘Investigating the Religious Identity Formation of Young People in Mixed-Faith Families’ (June 2006–September 2009) was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The research team consisted of Prof. Eleanor Nesbitt and Dr Elisabeth Arweck. Using ethnographic research methods, the project built on previous WRERU studies on religious nurture in examining the factors which influence young people’s religious identity, allegiance, activities and beliefs in relation to their parents’ faith backgrounds.

With a number of individuals from a mixed background very much the focus of public attention, such as President Barak Obama, Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton, and singer Leona Lewis, and mixed relationships featuring in soaps on TV and radio, such as Eastenders and The Archers, awareness of ‘mixedness’ is growing.

While the Census provides data on the mixed-race population, statistics on mixed-faith or interfaith marriages is still incipient, but reveals an upward trend for both mixed-race and mixed-faith couples and individuals. However, faith communities have been aware of this trend for some time, particularly among younger adults. Some evidence of their existence and the issues which arise from religiously mixed families has been discussed in web chat rooms where contributors exchange approaches to mixing and meshing traditions in wedding ceremonies, holiday celebrations, and child-rearing. Further evidence has been the presence of support groups, such as the Interfaith Marriage Network and the Muslim/Christian Marriage Support Group, which provide a forum for couples and individuals to share views and experiences.

While some people are sceptical and even negative about the mixed-faith background of children who grow up in interfaith families, others see it as an enrichment, a fertile ground for creativity, and a fine example of successful conflict resolution. However, there is no conclusive sociological evidence that children raised with two faiths are any better or worse off than children raised in a single faith. Academic research in this area has been scant, although some work has been done on Muslim/Christian families and families with a Jewish parent. The WRERU study on mixed-faith families sought to expand the knowledge about both mixed-faith couples and their children.

For the purpose of this research, families in which mother and father came from any combination of Christian, Hindu, Muslim or Sikh faith backgrounds were ‘mixed-faith families’. The four faiths allowed for six possible combinations: Christian/Hindu, Christian/Muslim, Christian/Sikh, Hindu/Muslim, Hindu/Sikh and Muslim/Sikh.

The aim of the project was to identify and explore processes in the religious identity formation of young people in mixed-faith families. The project had three objectives: 1) to identify differences and commonalties between children’s identity formation and parents’ expectations and perceptions of this; 2) to assess the impact of religious socialisation (formal and informal) and religious education on young people’s religious identity and their response; 3) to inform theoretical debate in religious studies and religious education on the representation of ‘faith communities’/’religious’ in syllabuses. The research questions explored the importance of several factors (gender, parents’ commitment, education, socio-economic status, locality, religious calendars, perceptions of faith) in young people’s faith development and how they and their parents represented these. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with young people (from age 8) and parents over a period of about 18 months—185 interviews in all (112 with adults, 73 with young people). On average, four or five interviews (lasting between 20 min and over an hour) were conducted with each participant. Most interviews were conducted in person (110), the rest by phone. The interviews relate to 28 families of the following combinations: 2 Hindu–Sikh, 10 Hindu–Christian, 6 Christian–Sikh, 10 Christian–Muslim, 0 Hindu–Muslim, 0 Muslim–Sikh. Participation was entirely voluntary and participants were assured of confidentiality and anonymity.

Although the project was conceived as a nation-wide study, the challenges during fieldwork were such that the team had to rely on personal contacts and snowball sampling. This restricted the geographical reach of the study to England, especially to the middle and south of England.

Findings from the study were presented at a number of national and international conferences and seminars (including BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group, International Society for the Sociology of Religion, International Seminar for Religious Education and Values, Association of Religious Education Teachers and Advisors), culminating in a project conference in March 2009. (A list of conference presentations can be found in the personal profiles of Eleanor Nesbitt and Elisabeth Arweck on WRERU’s web site.) Articles and book chapters reporting data from the study are forthcoming or in progress (see list below).

We would like to express our deep gratitude to the families who took part in this project. We are also indebted to many colleagues who have assisted us in various ways—too many to list here. And we are grateful to members of the steering committee who accompanied this study with support and advice. We appreciate the grant from the AHRC, which made this research project possible.

Eleanor Nesbitt & Elisabeth Arweck &

Publications Arising from the Project

Articles in refereed journals:

Nesbitt, Eleanor. ‘Research Report: Studying the Religious Socialization of Sikh and “Mixed-Faith” Youth in Britain: Contexts and Issues’, Journal of Religion in Europe 2 (1) 2009, 37-57.

Arweck, Elisabeth & Nesbitt, Eleanor. ‘Young People’s Identity Formation in Mixed-Faith Families: Continuity or Discontinuity of Religious Traditions?’, Journal of Contemporary Religion 25 (1), January 2010,67-87.

Nesbitt, Eleanor & Arweck, Elisabeth. ‘Issues Arising from an Ethnographic Investigation of the Religious Identity Formation of Young People in Mixed-Faith Families’, Fieldwork in Religion 5 (1), 2010, 7-30.

Arweck, Elisabeth & Nesbitt, Eleanor. ‘Enrichment or Estrangement: Young People in Mixed Faith Families and their Dual Heritage’, Religion (under review).

Arweck, Elisabeth & Nesbitt, Eleanor. ‘Plurality at Close Quarters: Mixed-Faith Families in the UK’, Journal of Religion in Europe 3 (1), 2010, 155-182.

Arweck, Elisabeth & Nesbitt, Eleanor. ‘The Role of Religious Education in the Religious Identity Formation of Young People in Mixed-Faith Families’, British Journal of Religious Education (forthcoming).

Arweck, Elisabeth & Nesbitt, Eleanor. ‘Close Encounters? The Intersection of Faith and Ethnicity in Religiously Mixed Families’, Journal of Beliefs and Values, 31 (1), April 2010, 39-50.

Arweck, Elisabeth & Nesbitt, Eleanor. ‘Mixed-Faith Families: Models for Christian-Muslim Relations?’ (provisional title), Journal for Christian-Muslim Relations (in draft stage).

Book chapters

Arweck, Elisabeth & Nesbitt, Eleanor. ‘Growing up in a Mixed-Faith Family: Intact or Fractured Chain of Memory?’, in Religion and Youth. Edited by Sylvie Collins–Mayo and Pink Dandelion, Ashgate, 2010, 167-174.

Arweck, Elisabeth. & Nesbitt, Eleanor. ‘The Interaction of the Major Religions at Microscopic Level: Religiously Mixed Families in the UK’ in Proceedings of the 2008 conference of ISREV edited by Jeff Astley and leslie Fancis (forthcoming).

Arweck, Elisabeth & Nesbitt, Eleanor. ‘Young People in Mixed Faith Families: A Case of Knowledge and Experience of Two Traditions?’ in Religion and Knowledge, edited by Mathew Guest and Elisabeth Arweck, Ashgate, 2011(in preparation).


Arweck, Elisabeth. ‘Investigating the Religious Identity Formation of Young People in ‘Mixed Faith’ Families: Report of Project Conference, held in March 2009.’ RE Today, September 2009.

Walters, Rosemary. ‘Investigating the Religious Identity Formation of Young People in “Mixed Faith” Families Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit Project Conference March 2009’, posted to the RE net area of the TTRB net web site, April 2009.

Nesbitt, Eleanor & Arweck, Elisabeth. ‘Religious education and Pupils from "Mixed Faith" families’, REsource 32 93), Summer 2010, 16-18.