Researcher of the Month – March 2021, Dr Abel Ugba

Dr Abel Ugba works in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds. Dr Ugba’s expertise and interests centre on the sociology of religion; media and religion and media and migration. Dr Ugba is has recently led the UK arm of a transnational project on Pentecostal Africans, funded by the US-based John Templeton Foundation. The project examined the health and healing practices Pentecostals in Uganda, Kenya, South Africa and the UK.

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

In the first phase of my professional journey, I studied media and worked as a journalist in various capacities in four countries, including Nigeria and Ireland. My arrival in Dublin in the late 1990s coincided with Ireland’s massive economic upturn, also called the Celtic Tiger economy, and the increased presence of immigrants. From a country that had historically sent out immigrants, Ireland became an immigration destination – a development that dominated the public discourse during my time there. After I completed an MA in journalism at Dublin City University, I worked with another journalist to set up Metro Eireann, a non-political newspaper that mediated news about Ireland’s immigrant communities. Still looking for a more durable way to scrutinise and document the massive changes in Ireland at the time, I enrolled for a PhD programme at Trinity College Dublin. My research examined the dynamics and implications of transnational Pentecostalism among newer African immigrants in the Greater Dublin Area. 

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

As explained above, the immigration situation in Ireland at the time that I arrived in that country played a huge role in shaping my research and scholarly interests. The changes that I described above were neither academic nor extraneous to me. They were a huge part of my everyday encounters. Also, some individuals that I encountered in my professional capacity provided encouragement and direction. For example, I first met the large-hearted lady who later became my PhD supervisor when I served as the pioneering editor of Metro Eireann. I was also lucky to encounter a famous Irish writer and a Booker Prize winner who became a good friend and a fervent supporter of Metro Eireann. He, from a literary/artistic perspective, and I from a journalistic view, would often ruminate about the socio-cultural and migration developments in his native country. These discussions and friendships heightened my interest in my current research area.  

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

I am working on a journal article based the findings of the research on the divine healing practices of Pentecostal Africans in Britain. I have also just started (since March1) a five-month research fellowship at the Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies at the University of Bayreuth, Germany. I am working from the UK for now because of the pandemic. During the fellowship, I aim to expand my current research by investigating the adoption and adaptation of divine healing ideologies by Pentecostal Africans in a German city. 

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

For over a decade, I have studied the dynamics of transnational Pentecostalism among Europe’s new African diasporas, focusing on the implications of religiosity for self-understanding and the delineation of social boundaries and commonalities in precarious immigration contexts. I have also conducted preliminary research on the mainstream British media portrayal of Black Majority Christian groups and the appropriation of new media by these groups to self-define and subvert mainstream media narratives. Along the way, I have examined the mediation of religion and sports in the British media. Specifically, I examined media representation of the religiosity of Black and African footballers in the Premier League.

By focusing on the presence and impact of African-led Pentecostalism in Europe, my research highlights one of the major developments in the socio-cultural and religious landscape of Europe in recent decades. In the 21st century, religion globalisation has included the propagation of hitherto provincialized practices to far-flung places, including secular western countries. This development has heightened the intersections (collisions in some cases) between the hegemonic social and political structures and religious ideologies that have been nurtured in a different, and sometimes conflicting, social and cultural milieu. The intersections have increasingly led to contentious public discourses about multiculturalism, religious minorities, reasonable accommodation for religiosity and cultural diversity in some European countries, including Britain. By focusing on the nuances and complexities of praxis, rather than the functional appropriation of religion in immigration contexts, my research makes evidence-based and non-partisan interventions in the academic and public discourse of contemporary faith and beliefs issues – ones that are likely to stick around for a long time.