Recent PhD Graduate Laura Upenieks to begin Tenure Track position at University of Texas, San Antonio

May 31, 2019 by Sherri Klassen

Recent PhD recipient, Laura Upenieks will begin a new position as a Tenure-stream Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas in San Antonio. Laura recently defended her dissertation and will officially convocate in the fall of 2019.  Her dissertation is titled Probing the Religion-Health Connection: Integrating Insights from the Life Course Perspective and Social Networks and she completed it under the supervision of Professors Markus Schafer (supervisor), Andrew Miles and Scott Schieman.

Laura's dissertation abstract is as follows:


While the balance of existing evidence suggests that religion is positively related to health and mental health, the nature of this relationship is complex, with religiosity found to have positive, negative, and null associations with various forms of health. While much progress has been made in revealing this complexity, there are several promising directions that can illuminate currently understudied aspects of this relationship. This dissertation further probes the religion and health connection by integrating the life course perspective and the religious dimensions of people’s close social networks.

I argue that the premise that earlier life conditions affect later life outcomes contains an underlying logic generalizable to the domain of religion. Using longitudinal data, Chapter 2 explores the potential long-term health effects of religiosity in the childhood home, and finds that children brought up in highly religious households have a higher risk of mortality than those socialized in more moderately religious households. Extending the findings of Chapter 2, Chapter 3 uses over 35 years of prospective panel data and expands on the life course perspective by considering religious accumulation—the consequences of remaining (ir)religious—as opposed to increasing or decreasing religious attendance, what I term religious mobility. Taken together, results suggest an enduring influence of childhood religiosity on health and mortality, and a beneficial impact of continuity of frequent religious practice over the life course. Health behaviors, particularly smoking, largely mediate the relationship between childhood religiosity and health.

Finally, Chapter 4 examines why network religiosity may promote or detract from well-being. Social connection is often offered as the reason for why religion (broadly defined) is beneficial for health. Using nationally representative egocentric network data, this chapter indicates that various dimensions of network members’ religiosity—shared religious tradition, discussion of religious matters, and exchange of prayer support—have different implications for mental health. These associations, moreover, are contingent on respondents’ own religiosity.

Considered as a whole, this dissertation broadens the vast body of work assessing the complex relationship between religion and health by offering insight into when and why religion may shape health, in both positive and negative ways.

The University of Texas at San Antonio is a large public university with a strong research and teaching mandate.  The sociology department has research strength in both the sociology of health and healing and the sociology of religion, two areas that complement Laura's research. In addition to furthering her research agenda in aging and the life course, and religion and health, Laura also expects to teach courses on aging and the life course, medical sociology, and quantitative methods.