PYGYRG Dissertation Prize 2020 winners

Each year, the Participatory Geographies Research Group (PYGYRG) of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) is pleased to offer an annual prize of £100 for an undergraduate dissertation that examines a social justice theme and/or involves a participatory methodology. Reflective of the scale and type of research carried out at undergraduate level, we are eager to encourage and reward both excellent scholarship and innovation.

We are very pleased to announce the winners for the PYGYRG dissertation prize 2020. We received some excellent submissions and three winners have been selected – congratulations to everyone involved! The winners are, in rank order:

1. Thea Montanaro with a dissertation entitled “Finding a forever home: Exploring the spatialities of the rescue dog” (University of Nottingham).

This project sits within the field of animal geography and draws on more-than-human geographies to specifically study the human-animal relationship. Humans have become increasingly attentive and thorough in the care of their pets, and yet abandonment is still a widespread issue leading to significant numbers of animals in rescue centres, especially dogs. There is a lack of geographic literature on the topic of rescue dogs, most likely because they disrupt a lot of the traditional work in canine geographies. This investigation sought to demonstrate not only how the spatialities of the rescue dog are produced through sites and relations, but how in turn these affect the human-animal relationship. Qualitative methods were used to carry out this study, including participatory research which took place in a rescue centre. To support this research, six semi-structured interviews were carried out with adopters of rescue dogs. The main conclusions drawn from this work are that rescue dogs develop a range of relationships throughout their lifetime, which are characteristically emotion, co-dependant and reproductive. Studying rescue dogs as individuals is crucial to understanding the human-animal relationship and that the relationship should not be considered an exclusive dualism, as multiple bodies can impact the relation. Spatially, rescue dogs are seen to ‘belong’ in domestic spaces as opposed to public areas. Aswell as addressing the research question, this project also contributes to some of the wider debates in animal geography, such as the disruption of binary categories and restrictions caused by certain labels.

This dissertation was a study of how the spatialities of the rescue dog are produced through sites and relations, and the effect this has on the human-animal relationship. I am passionate about dogs and using a participatory research method gave me the opportunity to simultaneously immerse myself within a rescue centre and the project itself. It was fascinating to research an area of Animal Geography that is lacking in literature and appreciate how rescue dogs disrupt a lot of the traditional work in canine geographies.”

2. Harriet Jennings with a dissertation entitled “What to wear? Exploring the sartorial practices of young Bengali women in an age of transnational fashion” (Durham University).

This dissertation examines how the question of what to wear is complexly lived and experienced by young, middle-class, Bengali women in an age of transnational fashion. In doing so, it aims to fill a gap in the geographical literature on fashion, and challenge existing works which pay little attention to the body within questions of dress. By triangulating both focus groups and participatory photography, this research places women’s bodies at the heart of sartorial-related issues, and uncovers the oppressive and empowering effects of fashion for women in the urban context of Kolkata, India. Rather than speaking for women, this dissertation aims to demonstrate the ways in which they discuss these issues themselves, and their efforts to navigate around the strict sartorial codes that constrain their lives. This study also examines broader themes concerning women’s fashion in respect of geographical debates about transnationalism. In doing so, it transcends the tendency in geography to explore transnationality solely in respect of immigrant groups, and demonstrates how the topic of fashion in India challenges our taken-for-granted assumptions about modernity. This research concludes with a plea for geographers to take fashion more seriously within the discipline, as it offers a productive lens through which to analyse women’s agency and life courses, as well as contemporary experiences of transnationalism.

What was particularly exciting about this project was the opportunity to conduct fieldwork / focus groups in Kolkata, India, meet with groups of women my age, and hear them describe their own stories, including the ways in which they navigate around some of the strict sartorial codes that constrain their lives. The participatory photography process was also a real highlight and I loved seeing the outfits the women chose – these really brought my project to life! Having Bengali heritage, I have spent much time in the city visiting family and friends and it was also significant on a personal level being able to delve deeper into issues concerning Bengali women’s dress that I’ve observed over the past fifteen years.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to the 27 young women in Kolkata for being so willing to take part in my research and also to the Geography department at Durham for your guidance and teaching – without you this dissertation would not have been possible!

3. Alexandra Tepman with a dissertation entitled “Social accessibility of university for students on the autism spectrum” (University of Exeter).

This dissertation aims to contribute to geographies of disability by providing insight into the experiences of higher education students on the autism spectrum, by focusing on the social barriers in university public spaces. To achieve this, online semi-structures interviews were used to find out about the experiences of students at the University of Exeter, with three themes emerging from this research. Firstly, social barriers were more influential than sensory barriers for autistic students in university spaces. Secondly, university campuses lacked adequate alternative spaces, even though these spaces were preferred to inclusionary spaces and finally, online spaces show the potential to make universities more inclusive, through their practical utility rather than as a social space. This paper is part of the shift within the geography discipline towards using the social model of disability to research specific impairments in order to better identify disabling barriers. It also ties in with ongoing debates within the discipline about ‘alternative spaces’ and ‘online spaces’. It will be concluded that in order to make universities more socially accessible, it is necessary to create more alternative spaces that take into account social barriers, such as online alternative spaces or offline safe spaces.

“My dissertation focuses on the social accessibility of university for students on the autism spectrum. Social barriers in higher education were discussed, as well as advantages of alternative spaces, particularly online. Due to the limited research on this topic, the research project provided me with the opportunity to develop an inclusive approach by integrating different methodologies. Furthermore, having previously worked with neurodivergent people, it was exciting to be able to merge my university degree with the practical knowledge from my job. Ultimately, by focusing on the University of Exeter, it was a rewarding experience to apply the research findings to the surrounding environment and work with the Accessibility team to see what positive changes could be made at the university.”