Religion, materiality and agency in 19th century travel writing

PhD spotlight | Edmund Hewson


Edward Hewson

Edmund Hewson is currently undertaking a PhD researching theoretical insights from the ‘new materialisms’ and thinkers, and the ‘material turn’ in religious studies to the study of British travel writing in the nineteenth century. 

  • PhD Title: Religion, materiality and agency in 19th century travel writing
  • Supervisors: Dr Grainne Goodwin, Professor Rob Burroughs

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to study for this particular programme. 

After my first degree in history in 1981, I qualified as an accountant, and spent a long career in management for a large UK training and publishing company. I joined the management of Leeds Beckett to help develop their online programmes in 2013. By a process of osmosis perhaps, I felt drawn back to academic study. I wanted to do something for its own sake, rather than for career development purposes or which was directly relevant to the job.

I looked at a couple of Masters programmes countrywide but chose the MA Social History offered by Leeds Beckett owing the breadth of the subjects covered – very different to my first degree – and the strongly interdisciplinary nature of what was offered.

I very much enjoyed the Master's programme, and was impressed by the culture and academic support provided by The School of Cultural Studies and Humanities. That whetted the appetite of my rediscovered scholarly self, which I released to feed on the more substantial course of a PhD. I talked this over with a number of the staff, and was delighted to be accepted onto the programme. My boss at Leeds Beckett was also supportive, which really did help.

Why did you choose Leeds Beckett?

I did the Masters at Leeds Beckett. As my PhD topic emerged out of one of the modules, and discussion with the module tutors, Leeds Beckett really was the best place to start. The Masters was interdisciplinary, which appealed to me, and so there is an institutional ‘open mind’ for this approach to PhD study. From the Masters, I knew the academics involved in the supervisory process. This, and having had a really good experience of the culture of the school, was really helpful. Everything you read about doctoral study says that getting that relationship right is absolutely critical.

What is your research about and what makes you passionate about it?

If you’re in a lift and need to explain your project to other passengers, what do you say? An ‘elevator pitch’ depends on (a) the number of floors and (b) the speed of the lift. I hope to apply theoretical insights from the ‘new materialisms’ and thinkers such as Bruno Latour, and the ‘material turn’ in religious studies to the study of (mainly) British travel writing in the long nineteenth century. I’ll cover travellers and their accounts, the role of religion in shaping their experiences, and different ways of recognising ‘agency’. Lots of theory.

Why travel writing? The easy answer is that I’ve love travelling and reading about it. Perhaps the pandemic will end this permanently. Researchers into the past are travelling back in time, if not in space. It’s easy to forget our cultural blind spots when critiquing those of the people we take the ‘travel account Tardis’ to visit. Religion is an area which mattered then and matters now. As for the theory, I first got into this after the end of the MA, when I took a circuitous journey pursuing multiple different ideas to account for how both travel and religious belief might be best understood. The best answer: I find it really interesting.

Printed image of large praying wheel at Soonum: from a sketch by the author

Large praying wheel at Sonuum: From a sketch by the Author From Simpson, W (1986) The Buddhist Praying-Wheel:  a collection of material bearing on the symbolism of the wheel and circular movements in custom and religious ritual: London; Macmillan and co.

How have you applied what you've learned from your work at the School of Cultural Studies and Humanities?

An ancillary benefit – the PhD has helped me navigate the journey from employment into retirement. A cliché about retirement is that you’re never busier, so I have remained part-time. This has some pros and cons, and I’ve planned for the years ahead even if many plans crumble on facing reality. I’ve really enjoyed the occasionally forensic serendipity of academic study, but knowing where to say ‘thus far and no further’ is harder to do, given there seem to be so many interesting things to explore. (And deciding what not to write about… I wonder if I overcompensate at times for a sort of unconscious ‘imposter syndrome’).

The supervisory team – and it’s a real plus to have two scholars engaged with your work – have been great in helping me shape the project. We meet regularly. The university has been supportive on one or two personal issues. So, all in all, the only ‘challenges’ are in the subject I have chosen…but dealing with them makes this process rewarding, doesn’t it? Two sides of the same coin.

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