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Researcher of the Month, June 2024: Ilaria Vecchi

Researcher of the Month

Dr Ilaria Vecchi is currently teaching in Religion, Politics and Society in the School of PRHS and is a member of CRPL.

Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now? 

It has been a long and convoluted journey from my undergraduate days to now. My Laurea Magistris – a five-year bachelor’s degree that no longer exists in Italy – was in Asian Cultures and Literature. I studied Hindi, Urdu, and Japanese, and for my dissertation, I translated Rinjal Dhanjal by Phanishwar Nath Renu into Italian and linked it to my research on Indian environmental issues. My Master's was in environmental politics, and the dissertation explored eco-communities in the UK, Italy, and Spain. Since I was interested in journalism and filmmaking, I earned a diploma in documentary filmmaking and began using my new skills as a research method. My PhD was an interdisciplinary study combining the critical religion approach, visual ethnography, and interactive documentary. The dissertation and documentary were about the changing tradition of the Itako mediums of Japan.

Who, or what sparked your interest in working on your particular research area? 

I became interested in the relationship between religion, politics, and representation and why some phenomena are labelled ‘religious’ and others are not. Timothy Fitzgerald’s seminal book pulled me into researching using the critical religion approach he developed. As the Critical Religion Association says, religion is not some object we can describe. As a category, it 'has little meaning on its own' because its boundaries are porous. So, one cannot study it without relating it to other categories, like politics, culture, and technology. Currently, my research focuses on the memorialisation of the dead, the use of technology, and its relationship with what we label ‘religion’ in Japan. Because of blurred borders, interdisciplinarity becomes the best approach to ‘religion’. So, I use interactive tools as a research methodology for studying memorialisation and for digitally mapping traditions, combining postcolonial studies, representation, and digital humanities. As a student of Asian languages and cultures who approached authors like Spivak or Said in her twenties, one becomes aware of the complex fabric woven over the centuries, which still affects our contemporary society, culture, and conflicts.

What are you currently, or about to start, working on?

Last year, I won a research bursary for developing a project combining interactive storytelling and conservation studies of religious sites. This work is a collaboration with Stefano Odorico (The Technological University of the Shannon) and the University of Catania. Through visual ethnography, interactive storytelling, and cultural studies, the project narrates the religious site, focusing on absence. Many archaeological finds are stored away from the public eye, leaving the link between the place, community, and material production severed. The audiovisual and digital outcome of the research is accompanied by an article, which will be published at the end of 2024. This work was a test for a research bursary I am applying for, which involves digital humanities, visual ethnography and the memorialisation of the dead. Besides this, I am completing an article on VR (virtual reality) and the memorialisation of the dead in Korea and Japan. I am also exploring different fields of interest, such as documentaries about India or produced by Indian filmmakers. I am now writing a paper on Forest of Bliss (Gardner, 1986) as an involuntary representation of the ecological situation of Banaras and the Ganges in 1980s India.


In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two? 

The interdisciplinarity of my research has given me the skills to consider the many layers forming what we call religion. For instance, my research in Japan or India highlights the complexity of the term religion, the fabric of relation between the political and cognitive influence of the West during colonial times, and current culture and representation. Lately, as technology has become ubiquitous in our daily lives, it is starting to play a significant role in religious and spiritual affairs as well. This is something my PhD work, as well as my recent work on the memorialisation of the dead in Korea and Japan, looks into.