York U PhD student gets $10,000 fellowship to help study the poor

A $10,000 supplemental award will help a 3rd-year York PhD student study the effectiveness of poverty groups protest tactics and how government bureaucracies respond to those tactics.

photo of the Social Work department lobbySocial Work student A.J. Withers, already operating under a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant, is the recipient of the Aileen D. Ross Fellowship under SSHRC's Talent Program. The fellowship is awarded yearly to a SSHRC doctoral award recipient conducting poverty-related research in sociology.

"As a long–time anti–poverty organizer, I find research that tells us what we did and how we are structured to be of limited use," Whithers says. "Rather than looking at the organization, I plan to look outwards from the perspective of a member of a group, at ruling relations and how to impact them."

Withers expects the award to have a significant impact on the dissertation research. "It means that I can travel to other cities in Canada and the United States to observe different poor people’s groups in action and speak with organizers about their work. It also means that I can buy good equipment for doing my field research, including a video camera, audio recorder and camera rather than relying on my cell phone."

The goal of the research is to develop a deeper understanding of how poor people’s organizations make gains and achieve their demands within a neoliberal climate. Whithers notes that a lot of social justice activists feel that academic research is often exploitative: researchers take the knowledge activists hold but don’t give much back in return

"I designed my project and its methodology so that both the process and the final product will be useful to the organization. Using participant observation, I will work as an anti-poverty organizer so that my own research labour contributes to the group," Withers says. "The research has the potential to produce knowledge about ruling relations and anti-poverty organizing. It could lead to social justice organizations being more effective."

Withers draws on personal experience in conducting the research. "I have first-hand experience of living in poverty, and survived on social assistance for the better part of a decade. I started working with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty because the systems that create and regulate poverty can and, in my view, need to change. Having been doing the work for over 15 years, I have seen poor people’s organizations make some significant gains."

However, in the current economic and political climate, poor people have lost much more than they have gained, Withers says. "I want to examine the minutia of poor people’s campaigns with the hopes of better understanding what makes victories happen so that organizations can be more effective."

As a 3rd–year student, Withers is at the Comprehensive Exam writing stage and anxious to get to research for the dissertation. "I still have a ways to go before I begin my research. I am eager to get into the field. My attention has been somewhat split so far during my PhD because I have also been working on my second book. With any luck, The Healing Power of Domination: Interlocking Oppression and the Origins of Social Work, which I am co-authoring with Chris Chapman, will be out the next year."

The goal of the Talent program is to support students and postdoctoral fellows in order to develop the next generation of researchers and leaders across society, both within academia and across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. The program promotes the acquisition of research skills, and assists in the training of highly qualified personnel in the social sciences and humanities.