Linda Woodhead is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, exploring the relationship between religious and social change worldwide with a particular focus on modern times. She was Director of the AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme (2007-2013), and has brought faith and religion into public debate - co-founding the Westminster Faith Debates with the Rt Hon Charles Clarke in 2011.
Why did you pursue an academic career?
It's all I ever wanted to do since about age 11. I've no idea why - my parents weren't keen, and my school wasn't particularly geared up for it. But I was always asking 'why?' questions, and I thought that becoming an academic would be a licence to keep doing that - and getting some answers. I am still motivated by the desire to catch the coattails of the truth.
What career achievements are you most proud of?
- Deciding to specialise in the study of religion despite being advised that it was a career cul-de-sac, and that the subject matter was about to die out.
- Realising how important 'spirituality' and forms of ritual and belief outside of organised religion were going to become, even though there was great resistance to the idea at the time. I was part of the Kendal Project – a locality study of religion and belief which, through patient probing over two years, discovered just how much relevant activity there was once you stopped looking for meaning-making just in the traditional places. We wrote it up in a book called The Spiritual Revolution.
- Directing the £12 million AHRC/ESRC Religion and Society Programme, and founding the Westminster Faith Debates (with the Rt Hon Charles Clarke) to disseminate its results. Before 'research impact' was on the agenda, we realised there was an urgent need to raise the level of understanding about religion in public life, and I think we've been pretty successful in doing that in the UK.
What is the most important issue society is facing today?
Population ageing is a key challenge. Changes in life expectancy mean we are all living longer, and as a consequence we need to think about how our life courses are altering and how society needs to adapt. The fact that one in three children born today will live to 100 is definitely a cause for celebration, but we also need to plan ahead to make sure that both today's and tomorrow's older people can live an active healthy life - and that when they need support and care, that support is both available and appropriate.
What do you feel is the most important finding of economics and social science over the past 50 years?
It's difficult to narrow down to one specific finding, but certainly the most significant achievement was for economic and social scientists, through the ESRC and other bodies, to have the foresight to invest in the collection and curation of longitudinal data which span across the past 50 years. The British birth cohort studies are the envy of social scientists across the globe, and have allowed us to investigate how life experiences impact on health and wellbeing later in the life course, and also to map how disadvantage has been replicated across generations within the same family – allowing us to formulate policy responses to enhance individuals' opportunities and improve wellbeing.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the ESRC.