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Ingrid Løland's PhD defense on religion, identity and conflict among Syrian refugees in Norway

Updated: Feb 16

Written by Ingrid Løland, Associate Professor, VID Specialized University.


On February 25th 2021, I performed my PhD defense at VID specialized university. Due to the Covid-situation, the defense was held digitally without the ‘pomp and circumstance’ that usually accompanies such an important rite de passage in the life of an academic. Luckily, I was allowed the comforting physical presence of two dear family members as well as a host of cheering colleagues and friends joining in at Zoom. This long-awaited, highly anticipated, but also nervously dreaded, event will forever be emblazoned on my mind. The whole experience epitomizes the sensation of passing a personal and milestoning threshold after years of navigating the many peaks and valleys that make up a PhD-journey. So, here is a brief summary of that memorable day – including some illustrated peeks into the presentation of my doctoral project and trial lecture.


As a historian of religion and migration scholar I was very happy with the evaluation committee which consisted of experts in the fields:


· Research Professor Marta Bivand Erdal, Peace Research Institute Oslo

· Professor Klaus Hock, University of Rostock

· Professor Frieder Ludwig, VID Specialized University


The evaluation committee responded to a submitted thesis entitled Narrative Battles and Bridges: Religion, Conflict and Identity in Syrian Refugee Trajectories. (A digital version of the dissertation is available here):




This is a qualitative study which seeks to explore the nexus between religion, identity and conflict as a lived phenomenon in stories narrated by Syrian refugees. By applying a spatio-temporal frame of trajectories, the research has attempted to delve more deeply into a storied landscape of the Syrian displacement crisis. It shows how memories, metaphors and life-rupturing experiences are subject to shared and contested identification processes and how storytelling serve as an essential vehicle for understanding the narrative battles and bridges of religion and identity discourses pertaining to the Syrian refugee population.

The trial lecture I was given builds on this work and was entitled «Theoretical reflections on religion, faith and identity in contexts of migration». I decided to approach this broad assignment through three stages. The first part provided a historical scene of the human being as an inherently migrating species and of religion as an integral part of past and present migration movements. I found it pertinent to show that religion itself consists of a multiplicity of migrating phenomena and that it can be a driver for migration, just the same way as migration can be a vehicle for the spreading of religious ideas.




The second looked at how the concepts of religion, faith and identity can be more holistically studied within various contexts of migration. I attempted to relay the dynamic uses of these concepts when considering contextual factors, pointing to the fact that they have been, and always will be, subject to change, contestation and discursive negotiations. Theorizing around religious entanglements in different contexts of migration is thus not merely vital to the study of religion, but also add important layers of understanding for those occupied with migration research.




In the final part of the trial lecture, I argued that such theorizing must always take dimensions of power (empowerment/disempowerment) into account, and be open for adjustments according to the complexities revealed through empirical realities. By taking a bottom-up view on these entanglements, I concluded the lecture by sharing some stories from my own fieldwork among Syrian refugees to illustrate the more subtle ways in which religion, faith and identity fluctuate in navigational contexts of migration and displacement.




Having shared a glimpse of my research and PhD-defense, it can feel like a strange sensation to finally have passed the finishing line of a long and arduous journey. It is like the ‘baby’ one has carried has suddenly been separated from its umbilical cord and that the research exists somewhat undefinedly in a space outside oneself. What now? What next?

I have promised myself, however, to keep the spark alive by venturing into more narrative research and keep attentive listening and mediation of voices an ethical virtue when studying migrants and refugees. As poignantly expressed by Michael Jackson (the anthropologist), stories can be seen as key portals into which dense experiential realms of displacement can be better understood and existentially acknowledged.

In a world with record-high migration numbers, I believe this to be an important reminder for many of us scholars working interdisciplinary with migration, religion and intercultural relations.




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