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Researcher of the Month - March 2020, Prof. Asonzeh Ukah

Researcher of the Month

As part of our ongoing partnership with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice, this month we are featuring the academic journey and work of Professor Asonzeh Ukah. His research interests include religion and globalisation, media and material culture of African Pentacostalism.  

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

 My undergraduate research focus - Truth & Truth-Telling (comparative religion) - at the University of Ibadan was an initiation experience for me. Although it was a discursive and textual review, my dissatisfaction with religious ethics, and the outcome of my project, decisively pushed me into empirical and qualitative research on Christian life, practices and institutions. My first postgraduate research was about media use in/by Pentecostal organisations in southwest Nigeria (sociology of religion). This is followed by a narrower concern about marketing communication and proselytization strategies among Pentecostal organisations, focusing specifically on the visual content, meaning and function of religious posters (industrial sociology). This interdisciplinary study path was alongside working in larger international research projects where I had the opportunity to learn from skilled researchers and scholars. This included working as a research assistant, and later the research officer, on a project titled: “The Media and New Religious Publics in Yorubaland”.

Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area? 

My primary motivation has been a curiosity and personal search for answers to the problem of pain and evil. I was intrigued about the conventional answers which one gets in the presence of unyielding evil and how most of these answers were religious. Yet, I was unsatisfied and needed more. The only way to get more grounded answers was to interrogate further by going to the source. The source, in my case, was religion. After reading The Everlasting by Leonard Bishop (1982) and John Hick’s (1966) Evil and the God of Love, I became obsessed by Epicurus’s dilemma about God and evil: “God either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able and unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or he is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable […]; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, […]; if He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able […], from what source then are evils? Or why does He not remove them?”

The Epicurean dilemma forced me to interrogate orthodoxies and received doctrines. More importantly, it made me irreverent in my research outlook, seeking the research paths least travelled, mapping out my distinctive research paths through such apparent obstinacy. My chosen research path and the disposition of methodological agnosticism were strewn with challenges and obstacles, but it paid off in the long run.

 What are you currently, or about to start, working on? (approx. 150 words)

Since 2016, I have been working on a project titled “Miracle Cities: The Economy of Competitive Prayer Camps and the Entrepreneurial Spirit of Religion in Africa”. The project looks at the nature and practices of prayer camps in West and East Africa and their relationship to urbanization processes and ecologies. I have concluded fieldwork in Lagos and Kampala and begun publishing on it. A more recent project I am developing is on the intersection of media and the production of excess, or surplus, religion in Africa. The project is exploring how media use influences certain forms of religious innovations that transgress received or conventional notions of religion as a form of a public, or collective, good. Such innovations are generating debates about the role of the state in the definition, regulation, production, circulation and consumption of religion in Africa.

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

Although my initial steps were directed towards finding answers or insights to personal questions, the issues I have engaged with have been public. Religious language and communication are public in their practice and ramifications. If they were not public, they would lack social relevance and any appeal to me, personally. I have worked on religious peer education and reproductive health issues in Annangland in southern Nigeria. This was followed by a project on Religious Institutions and Women’s Reproductive Health/Rights in Ibadan. This project made the religious needs and concerns of women as well as the impact of religion on public policy increasingly important in my future research. While more women than men participate in Pentecostalism and its rituals, few women (outside of the cohort of founders’ spouses) exercise real power in these organisations. The core interests in my research from the 1990s till present have been the public roles of religion and religious institutions and how they interface with urban life, the economy and the social organization of power. For example, I have been preoccupied with the connection between Pentecostal expansion in Africa with money. A running undercurrent in these projects is the place of religious authority in the social production of the sacred, as well as the nature of social development from a religious perspective. Indeed, rephrasing the Epicurean dilemma, one would ask, if religion is good and positively correlates with social development, why is Africa at the bottom of all social indices of development? A nuanced answer to this dilemma, in my view, demands bold, rigorous empirical investigation that is prepared to confront the bias for religion and the possibility of spiritual or religious blackmail, which some researchers often encounter in the field when received, or ‘invested’, perspectives are interrogated. In this respect, my research has been about public life and organised religion all along.