Sociology PhD students research profiles

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Andrew Butler

Working title: Liquid water, leaky method: a social scientific exploration of the conditions and emergence of water as controversy in Canterbury, New Zealand.

Primary supervisor: Associate professor Terry Austrin

Contact details:

Thesis summary:
Over the last few decades water has become an issue of critical importance. Ranging from global concerns regarding climate change and water scarcity, the deployment of development aid seeking to alleviate the 1 billion people who lack access to safe clean drinking water, and the 2.6 billion without adequate access to basic sanitation. Furthermore, there are the escalating costs of urban infrastructure. Both in terms of accommodating the increasing move of population towards urban living, and the maintenance of existing but aged infrastructures that currently collect and distribute water in cities. In an age of increasing population, food production is of central importance and key to this is the availability of land, and specifically productive land which requires irrigation.

Suffice it to say that the issue of water is extraordinarily complex and large scale, an issue which crosses national borders and effects many populations in a huge variety of ways. To all of us, water is of central and universal importance to both our ongoing existence, and the structure of our everyday lives.

In New Zealand, most of us are in a position of perceived water abundance. However, underneath this abundance there exists an uncompromising reliance upon this substance, a reliance which underpins 50-60% of our nations’ national electricity grid, which supports our cities, and of importance to this research, is a key factor in agriculture – an industry which contributes greatly to our nations’ core economic structures and livelihood.

New Zealand’s perceived water abundance, however, is far less straightforward and in this there exists a simmering set of controversies which feature significantly in the ways we allocate, distribute, use, and treat our water systems.

The focus of this research will look specifically at the region of Canterbury, which over the last decade at least, has been plagued by controversy over the allocation and use of water, particularly in regards to the increase of dairying in the region – an industry in which over 90% of dairy solids produced go to the export market, an industry which is allocated 89% of consented water takes in Canterbury (as opposed to the 3% consumed for urban municipal supply), an industry which is often charged with practices which pollute our water bodies, an industry which heavily relies upon the free use of huge amounts of water which is translated into product (predominantly milk powder) for export markets.

Water abundance in the region of Canterbury suffers from temporal variation, along with the expansion of dairying over the last 20 years, and the climatic characteristics of the region means that the allocation, distribution and management of water is a complex which is putting the resource under significant pressure.

The first controversy being approached will be the issues of the water metering of all consents granted for drawing 20 litres and over per second in Canterbury, as stated in section 360 of the Resource Management Act. The regulation which came into force in November 2012, yet there remains a significant number of non-compliant consent holders. The second controversy surrounds the question of the efficient and appropriate use of water in the production of dairy products, the relevance of Canterbury’s water to the economic prosperity of New Zealand and the relation of Canterbury’s water to export markets.

Rather than approach these matters as discrete problems, what is to be understood and accounted for in this research is the multifaceted character of water, the complexity of water in these processes, and the scores of practices, processes and technologies which participate in the framing and emergence of water in the specificities that it is found in the region of Canterbury, New Zealand. In this regard, water is understood to cross numerous boundaries, is complex, and particular in the conditions in which it is used, and is a highly mediated physical substance which is rarely, if even, encountered alone as a pure ‘natural’ substance. It is inherently entangled with economies, politics and administration – both regionally and nationally – it is imbued with cultural values, is understood through scientific practices, and is more often than not, mediated through a plethora of complex objects, processes and technologies which enable and participate in the development of the very ‘nature’ of water in situ.

This research will be empirically driven, multi-disciplinary project seeking to first, more fully investigate and describe the emergence of water in the Canterbury region. Data will be drawn from multiple sources, as they are needed and implemented, through field based research drawing on farm management practices, scientific data, industry related information, politics and ethnographic accounts regarding how this physical substance is encountered, utilised, understood and distributed.

Alongside this investigation into water, the project is also geared toward an exploration of method, seeking to theoretically and methodologically understand the research process, the research development process and the role and nature of the scientific in social science. Furthermore, the end point of this research is the intention to present in digital form – as a web site through which the research can be articulated in dynamic ways which better communicate the complexity of the topic, the non-linear and multi-faceted character of water, and the co-production of research as it emerges in conjunction with water as a physical substance. This is an exploration which seeks to create not only a thesis, but a political work which focuses a particular kind of social science which can break out of the boundaries of investigating, simply put ‘social effects,’ and expand into a field which can incorporate an integration with different disciplines and non-academic organisations – a field that is not determined by the disciplinary affiliation but by the topic area – water in this case – and can engage with numerous and varied forms of data and information, constructing a social science which is equally as fluid as the physical substance of water.

Ronnie Cooper

Working title: Good Intentions: Expectations of Benefit from Technological Innovation

Primary supervisor: Assoc Prof Rosemary Du Plessis, Sociology, Canterbury
Co-supervisor: Prof Richard Hindmarsh, Griffith University, Queensland

Contact details: / 021-204-5905

Thesis summary:
This thesis focuses on the promotion of scientific and technological innovation through the claims of anticipated future benefit that are used to justify and valorise R&D and to encourage the diffusion of new technologies. These are explored via analysis of projections of expected benefit advanced for two fields of technological development in New Zealand: genetic modification and wind energy.

Constructs of future benefit are important strategic resources for science and technology, instrumental in securing funding and institutional, political and public support. The plausibility and appeal of expected benefits are all the more important when there is uncertainty or controversy around a particular project or technological field. The ways future benefits are framed, and the kinds of returns and outcomes that are promoted, have major implications for technoscience – influencing research orientations, the options considered useful or practical, the amounts of taxpayer dollars invested in R&D and institutional and regulatory systems, and the actual products and processes eventually manifested in our landscapes, agriculture, foodstuffs, medicines and infrastructure. Some technology pathways and applications are supported and fostered; others are rejected, delegitimated, or marginalised to “fringe” status.

There has been extensive academic and policy analysis of the dynamics of technoscience processes, the complexities of sociotechnical systems, and the potential risks of research products and new technologies. While risk debates are important and enlightening, nevertheless they engage with the ‘downstream’ implications of innovation, well after research has begun, funds have been invested and commitments established. The benefits promoted as justification for particular R&D directions have largely been taken for granted and rarely questioned by practitioners, policy actors and publics. However the significance of projections of future outcomes from science and technology has recently become the focus of an emerging field of international scholarship, the sociology of expectations (for example: van Lente 1993; Brown, Rappert and Webster 2000; Brown and Michael 2003; Sturken, Thomas and Ball-Rokeach 2004). As yet there is little awareness, amongst policy and institutional actors or wider communities, of this work. Nor is there much recognition of the importance of understanding how constructs of future benefit shape present-day research priorities and technology trajectories. A key starting point for this thesis is that such understanding is crucial for publics, interested groups, and official and sectoral actors to engage effectively with the challenges of contemporary technoscience.

This thesis takes technology processes back ‘upstream’ to investigate the benefit framings used to advance developments in GM and wind energy in New Zealand. Both technologies are innovations in the New Zealand context, requiring new knowledge, capacities, infrastructure, policy and regulatory systems, and public marketability. Each is promoted with a mix of utilitarian, commercial-profit and idealistic, public-good frameworks of benefit. And each is characterised by considerable controversy, with uncertainty and intense contestation around their performance, reliability and acceptance.

The thesis uses the theory of Pierre Bourdieu as the basis for integrating concepts from wider scholarship in science and technology studies. Bourdieu’s approach to analysis of the dynamics of fields, in terms of their characteristic habitus and the strategic utilisation of symbolic capital, provides a practical theoretical foundation for critique of the role of benefit claims in the trajectories of GM and wind energy in New Zealand. The primary data includes extensive interviews with key scientists, engineers, and sectoral and policy actors, and materials from institutional, industry, policy and promotional discourses around these technologies.

Mohammed M. Khan

Working title: Disaster and Gendered Vulnerability in Coastal Bangladesh

Primary supervisor: Dr Alison Loveridge, Sociology
Co-supervisor: Dr Piers Locke, Anthropology

Contact details:

Thesis summary:
Disaster and gender discourse have focused on vulnerability and risks and impacts on different social class and groups of people. From a gender perspective, it is typically found that women are more vulnerable in disastrous times. The impacts of disaster are worse for women than men. Bangladesh is extremely a gender segmented society, where socio-cultural norms and practices make differences in experiencing disaster between men and women. The magnitude and level of vulnerability during disasters are determined by pre-existing institutional and structural inequality. In general, women in Bangladesh occupy a subordinated status in the family, community and society at large. Gender relations are configured by power relations, socio-cultural practices and institutional structures that subordinate women. The unequal, discriminatory and imbalanced rights over resources, gendered responsibilities, economic status, level of education, lack of entitlement to property, lack of decision-making power, religious practices and norms etc. are relevant to the vulnerability of women and preventing women from enjoying equal-rights and equal-partner status in Bangladeshi coastal communities.

Individuals and social groups carry different and disproportionate “vulnerability bundles”. The cultural and social subordination of women increases their disaster related vulnerability (Cannon and Serrat as cited in Enarson and Morrow, 1998). Blaikie, Cannon, Davis and Wisner (1994:48) argued in this regard “gender is a pervasive division affecting all societies, and it channels access to social and economic resources away from women and towards men. Women are often denied the vote, the right to inherit land, and generally have less control over income earning opportunities and cash within their own households. Normally their access to resources is inferior to that of men. Less access to resources leads to increased vulnerability and in general women are more vulnerable to hazards”. Disaster is an event that reveals nature of practices, norms, community bondage, relationship, social structure and power relations within intimate relationships which have been reflected in Akhter’s study (1992). He found that in the case of a Bangladeshi father of five daughters and a son caught up in cyclone and flood in the struggle to survive during disaster, father released his daughters one after the other, so his son could survive.

The economic vulnerability, disparity and distress are making women dependent on assistance and aid such as relief. But access to aid and assistance are differentiated and discriminated based on gender, marital status, age and personal communication. On top of the economic disparity their care giving responsibility intensifies the vulnerability of women in disastrous times (Bari, 1992). The aftermath of the cyclone and tidal wave hits women the hardest and the worst. Their men may have lost the fishing equipment necessary to earn a living, their children have died and their homes and belongings were washed away but at the end of each day it was the wife/mother who had to cook for whoever survived in her family. Women, however, mostly suffered but were significant contributors who mitigate and reduce the vulnerabilities caused by cyclone and different other disasters. In addition disasters perpetuate and exacerbate the vulnerability and disadvantages of the female headed households. Within these limitations, women in Bangladesh have more capacity to protect their families’ lives and resources than is acknowledged socially. My interested PhD research tittle is “Disaster and Gendered Vulnerability in Coastal Bangladesh” aims broadly to explore the gender relation and the vulnerability of women in coastal Bangladesh which is highly vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme weather events. The specific objectives of my research are to explore the nexus between unequal distribution and lack of entitlements to resources and gendered vulnerability, effectiveness of women leadership in disaster management, institutional local practices that causing disproportionate vulnerability for women, female headed households, their vulnerability and resilience and how to develop a bottom up approach.

Ambika Kohli

Working title: My thesis title is “Abortions, Motherhood, and Decision Making in India”.

Primary supervisor: Dr Anne Scott
Co-supervisor: Dr Nabila Jaber

Contact details:

Thesis summary:
In this thesis I’ am looking into how Indian women practice their reproductive agency in context of choosing motherhood and abortions under various socio-cultural, economic, family, and legal pressures. The study investigates various reasons for choosing abortions and motherhood like social, economical, family size, with main focus on son preference. The study also investigates how abortions have become institutionalised and the institution of motherhood remains a doxa in the Indian society. It is a qualitative study and aims to involve 30-35 participants. I’ am using Bourdieu’s approach on habitus, agency, capital and field. The conceptual framework focuses on the women’s empowerment models with a specific focus on educational empowerment. I further draw a line between empowerment and emancipation using the concept of practical and strategical gender needs.

My research interests are: gender and development, agency, gender violence, reproductive agency, reproductive rights, sexuality, power, reproductive laws, social structures, and women in the south.

Simon Chima Nwachukwu

Working title: Social capital, Empowerment and Development Needs

Dr Alison Loveridge (Primary supervisor)
Dr Nabila Jaber (co-supervisor)

Contact details:

Thesis summary:
This research examines cooperative social capital as a major factor in achieving empowerment and setting development goals in rural communities. It evaluates the practice of trust and reciprocity as core to social capital in both internal bonding and external bridging processes using cooperatives in Owerri Imo state, Nigeria as a case study.

The project’s main purpose is to ascertain how social capital essentials, such as trust and reciprocity, are being played out in the running of an efficient modern day cooperative society that empowers its members and serves its community’s economic and social development needs. It seeks to understand the essential role of ‘trust’ in bridging cooperative network interactions with various support groups and how resources are managed for beneficial purposes.

The researcher argues that cooperatives that have robust internal social capital bond exude trust signals which attract and enhance external bridging social capital relationship with network support groups. Hence these cooperatives may take up rural empowerment and development tasks more efficiently.
The project adopts the mixed methods of participatory action research, survey and case study for its field work in some chosen group communities of Owerri, Imo state in south eastern Nigeria.

Nicola Surtees

Working title: Queer imaginings and diverse practices: lesbians, gay men and their children

Primary supervisor: Associate Professor Rosemary Du Plessis
Co-supervisor: Dr Kathleen Quinlivan

Contact details:

Thesis summary:
This qualitative research study grew out of my interest in family. Located between wider discursive social shifts in relation to the conceptualisation of family, the study positions families as richly diverse, changing, and constituted by what they do rather than as a homogeneous, static ideological construct. The study’s main aim is to investigate changing ways of imagining and doing family and the shifts this imagining and doing of family might represent. While I have focused specifically on the planned and actual family relationships and practices of lesbians and gay men who have teamed up to conceive and co-parent children together, my hope is that this research will challenge taken-for-granted assumptions about orthodox nuclear families as the ‘norm’ while documenting and making accessible new possibilities for innovative family relationships and practices of relevance to everyone, not just those who identify as lesbian or gay. This research intends to disrupt the taken-for-granted primacy of heterosexual two parent models; legal relationships between parents; legal and biogenetic relationships between parents and children; and, co-residence as a benchmark for families while facilitating the examination of imagined and actual unconventional family possibilities.

Cindy Zeiher

Working title: Desire in the 21st Century

Contact details:

Thesis summary:
My research focuses on how the experience of subjective desire can be understood within contemporary ideological systems. Theoretically I draw upon those authors, especially Slavoj Žižek, who employ Lacanian psychoanalysis in critical social research and cinema theory.

Lacey, C. & Zeiher, C. (Forthcoming August 2014). Love is a Piece of Cake. Écranosphère: Traversing Screen Fantasies, Canada.
Zeiher, C. (2014). How to Kill Your Mother: Desire, Heavenly Creatures and Žižek’s Return to Ideology. In M. Flisfeder and L.P. Willis (Eds.) Žižek and Media Reader, Palgrave MacMillan: Canada.
Zeiher, C. (2014). Other/big Other. In R. Butler (Ed.) Dictionary of Žižek, Acumen Publishing: Durham.
Zeiher, C. (Dec, 2013). Tracking an Authority of Ideology. TOPIA: Canadian Journal for Cultural Studies, 29.
Zeiher, C. (2012). Between the subject and the social: signifying images of desire and ideological subjectivities. International Journal of Žižek Studies, 6 (2). Retrieved from

The current research interests of Sociology staff are also a useful starting point when you are choosing your topic and area of interest, and when you are ready to identify suitable supervisors.

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