Briefing paper

Pilgrimage Futures – a collaborative approach to understanding pilgrimage in the UK

Sharing data to inspire discussion, increase diversity of perspectives, and enhance research outcomes.
sunrise over path through field of crops

The project is hosted by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) at the Centre for Deliberation and funded by the British Academy and Leverhulme small grants scheme. It is running until December 2024.

Pilgrimage Futures logo (large)

About the study

This project will work with a diverse cohort of practitioners, charities, institutions, and community groups who are engaged with pilgrimage to reflect on their current approaches to data and how they can develop these for the future. Pilgrimage is recognised as an important part of the UK’s history and heritage, but our assumptions about contemporary meanings and practices of pilgrimage can be very limited. Over the past few decades, pilgrimage has flourished in the UK, reflecting the growth of a multi-ethnic and multi-faith society, and grassroots efforts of individuals and communities to find meaning and articulate other forms of spirituality and beliefs through creative encounters with landscapes or narratives. Pilgrimage can take place in analogue (‘real world’) formats and (increasingly) online and through digital media. The growth of pilgrimage practices, which have been cultivated by different groups and institutions, including local and regional governments, has generated calls for greater investment in infrastructure, to take advantage of the potential economic benefits of religious tourism. But economic value is only one dimension of the overall value that people attribute to pilgrimage, and there are other benefits, which individuals and communities, researchers and academics, believe are also important, but which are often difficult to study. 

The project aims to:

  • Identify barriers to, or challenges for, data creation and sharing for pilgrimage and co-produce possible solutions.
  • Establish data pathways that are reflective of how diverse groups experience and understand the personal, community and social benefits of pilgrimage.
  • Advocate for greater recognition of the diversity and social realities of faith and belief in the UK.
  • Create a resource to encourage informed, pluralistic decision making, on the part of funders, and local and national policy makers.
  • Locate sensitivities or differences in values or outlooks regarding pilgrimage practices and research.

The project is hosted by NatCen at the Centre for Deliberation and funded by the British Academy and Leverhulme small grants scheme. It is running until December 2024.


A ‘data collaborative’ approach

Data helps us tell stories about ourselves and produce knowledge about society. How we create data about pilgrimage informs what stories we can tell about these practices and what we can learn from them. There are tremendous challenges we face when creating data about pilgrimage, from multiple meanings, uses, locations and forms, to the inequalities of access to resources or labour, which may prevent institutions, as well as grassroots, or marginalised groups, from contributing important knowledge. Some people may have assumptions that data only capture large scale social phenomena, or that we must produce ‘big data’ to do proper research; they may not believe, therefore, that their knowledge, meanings, or practices are ‘big’ enough to contribute to understanding. Some communities have especial concerns about privacy or feel strongly that the value or benefit of pilgrimage should not or cannot be understood through data.

This project uses a data collaborative framing to bring new insights to contemporary pilgrimage and collectively consider its potential futures. Data collaboratives are “cross-sector and public-private partnerships aimed at data collection, sharing, or processes for the purposes of addressing a societal challenge’ (Susha, et. al, 2017). This project shares some of these features, but it is qualitative and involves the multiple intersections between grassroots practices, charities, cultural institutions, local government, and faith and belief communities that pilgrimage mobilises. 

Through data collaboration and cooperation, the project brings principles of action research, co-production, and deliberation together to support partners to overcome challenges to data creation and sharing, offer support and resources where appropriate, and engage participants to exchange learning, ideas, and outlooks. This data collaborative uses research practice as a space for reflection, inviting partners to think through the values or benefits that they see articulated in pilgrimage in dialogue with others. 

A data collaborative approach aims to:

  • Share views and experiences of current data creation, data sharing, and the barriers they face in respect of these.
  • Equalise knowledge resources, by supporting people to create, analyse or share data that matches their contexts, needs and notions of value.
  • Use data as a site for self-reflection and reflexivity, where groups, institutions, and organisations can think through their practices in relation to others.
  • Support partners to identify and recognise legal and ethical issues, such as GDPR, rights to privacy, or anxieties and sensitivities surrounding data creation.
  • Engage with research as opportunity for relationship building, and as a process which itself supports meaning making.

Get in touch

If these themes or subjects resonate with you, if you’d like to learn more or get involved, please get in touch with Dr Eleanor O’Keeffe,