Research projects

Find out about the current research projects that staff and students in the School of Social and Cultural Studies are currently involved with.

Some current research projects within the School of Social and Cultural Studies include:

Social and technological infrastructures in tertiary education and beyond

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Dr Lorena Gibson, a senior lecturer in the Cultural Anthropology Programme, and former colleague Dr Grant Otsuki, were awarded an FHSS-FoE Strategic Research Grant for their new project, “Content and Platform: An ethnographic study of the social and technological infrastructures in tertiary education and beyond.”

Media scholars argue that what defines “content” is not that it conveys information; instead, its main purpose is to circulate via digital platforms. Think TikTok and YouTube. This project explores how platforms – like Canvas – are transforming education into “content,” and what that means for teaching practices, student experiences, and university futures.

Over two years, this project will use multi-sited ethnography to understand how tertiary students, teachers, and institutions in Aotearoa engage educational content and digital platforms. Otsuki and Gibson will also work with platform developers to understand the design principles and practices they use, and how this shapes the way that content circulates.

The importance of this project is in bringing together two loci of change. Universities are making greater use of platforms to enhance peoples’ abilities to participate in society, culture, politics, and the economy. Concurrently, digital platforms are where much of society, culture, politics, and the economy happens today. This project will study the relationship between universities and broader society by focusing on their shared nexus of change: content and platform.

Explaining Māori atheism in Aotearoa New Zealand

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Dr Sara Rahmani is the Principal Investigator on a major new project: Explaining Māori Atheism in Aotearoa New Zealand. This study will run for two years and is part of the global Explaining Atheism project funded by the Templeton Foundation. Professor Peter Adds (Te Kawa a Māui) and Associate Professor Geoff Troughton are co-investigators.

Between 2006 and 2018, the percentage of Māori identifying with “no religion” on the national census increased from 36.5% to 53.5%. This change coincided with a substantial decline in Māori affiliating with Christianity (from 46.2% to 29.9%) as well as a smaller decrease in Māori identifying with “Māori religions, beliefs, and philosophies” (from 11.5% to 7.7%) in the same period.  Similar patterns were observed among Māori immigrants in Australia.  Despite these dramatic shifts, we know little about Māori atheism, or the individual, sociocultural, and historical processes contributing to Māori deconversion.

Taking “atheism” as non-belief in the existence of god(s) and other supernatural phenomena, the aim of this project is to provide a well-evidenced causal account of how and why some Māori became or remain atheists.  In-depth interviews with Māori a/theist will be conducted to identify key causal factors of atheism at the individual and societal levels.

Given the complicated post-colonial and bicultural context of Aotearoa New Zealand, the project team’s analysis will also pay a close attention to the intersectionality between the history of colonisation, Christianisation, Māori cultural revitalisation policies, and the impact of online social media on the emergence of Māori atheism.

Assisted reproduction and new family formation

Associate Professor Rhonda Shaw (Sociology) is currently involved in three research projects on assisted human reproduction in Aotearoa New Zealand. Rhonda is a Principal Investigator on the ‘Accessing Assisted Reproduction: Social Infertility and Family Formation’ (2019 – 2022) project. The study, supported by a Marsden-fund grant of $816,000, explores the experiences of people who are denied or encounter difficulties accessing assisted reproductive technologies. It examines how these individuals create families in the context of globalised reproduction, and how they negotiate and manage their relationships with providers of reproductive materials and services in the process of family building. The aim of the study is to formulate new ways of theorising kinship and family life that will promote wider acceptance of new forms of family.

The second study, ‘Expert views of Assisted Reproduction’, involves qualitative research with experts based in Australia and New Zealand (academics, policy makers, lawyers, consumer groups, fertility clinic specialists, counsellors, and healthcare professionals) about their involvement with fertility treatment and their views on a range of reproductive technologies.

The third study on 'Reproductive Futures' examines the online and in-person views of young people about their decision-making and experiences of fertility preservation.

Entanglements between religion and development

Over the past seven years Dr Philip Fountain has worked alongside colleagues at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute in conducting pioneering research on the entanglements between religion and international aid and development. Development scholars still tend to imagine that religion has little to do with the work of development organisations in initiating social and economic change, but Philip’s work has shown how mistaken this assumption is. His research has highlighted how contemporary encounters with religion decisively shape development outcomes. Careful examination of the history of development also reveals deep religious roots that continue to shape the social and moral imaginary, field practices and organisational infrastructure of NGOs today.

Components of this research were generously supported by the Henry Luce Foundation with a grant of US $400,000 for studying ‘Religion and NGOs in Asia’ (2015–2018). A highly productive collaboration, the project has resulted in the publication of multiple books and articles. Handy overviews of this research, published in 2018, include a blog post on ‘Religion and NGOs’ and a paper on ‘Religion in the Age of Development’, available in open-access online and both co-authored with Michael Feener.

Sex work and the impact of sex work laws

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Dr Lynzi Armstrong is currently involved in two international comparative research projects focused on the experiences of sex workers and the impacts of sex work laws. Lynzi is leading a project on stigma, discrimination and sex work laws in New Zealand, Scotland and Ireland, funded by a Marsden Fast Start Grant ($300,000, 2019-2023). A total of 80 in-depth interviews have been undertaken with sex workers and activists in these three countries by Lynzi and a team of research assistants that she is working collaboratively alongside. In September 2022 Lynzi held a symposium titled ‘Stigma, Sex Work and the Law: From Research to Action’ at the University of Northumbria Law School, which brought together the research team with other academics and activists working in related areas, to discuss the project and more broadly how to translate social research into action.

On the second project, she is a collaborator alongside colleagues in Canada and the US, on the Law and Sex Work Project, with a focus on examining how sex work laws are experienced in New Zealand, Canada and Nevada.

In recently years Lynzi’s work in this area has attracted considerable interest internationally, with a book she co-edited ‘Sex Work and the New Zealand Model: Decriminalisation and Social Change’ briefly featuring in an episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. The same book has since been translated into Spanish by Virus Editorial. In September 2022, Lynzi was invited to give a public talk in Seville on the Spanish version of the book, and was also interviewed for a media article on the impacts of decriminalising sex work.

Are we over-diagnosed and over-medicated?

Kevin Dew

We are constantly bombarded with displays of medications and advertising in our everyday lives. Supermarket aisles are stocked with medications, we walk past pharmacies every day, advertisements appear on the Internet

A better life beckons if we take this pill. And there is an ever expanding array of conditions which, we are told, can be improved if you just follow the prescription.

Chronic and life threatening conditions are of course a target for the drug companies selling their products in pursuit of profit, but also increasingly a range of other behaviours and symptoms that were not previously medicalised are coming under the purview of the drug peddlers – including our emotional state, our self-control and our sexual performances.

In sociology the issue of medicalisation, a process where more and more conditions, situations and experiences are responded to with medical solutions, usually pharmaceuticals, has been of interest for decades. And there is some substance to concerns about this process. To take one example, the prescribing of Zopiclone, an hypnotic drug used to improve sleep, increased by 300% over a ten-year period in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Unfortunately Zopiclone, like most drugs, can cause side effects, and with and increasing number of people using different drugs at the same time to treat multiple conditions, the potential damaging effects of over-prescribing are multiplied.

A further problem here is that we are not very good at recording side effects from the medications we are prescribed.

Research by Professor Kevin Dew and his colleagues has shown that when patients raise concerns about side effects to their GP, they do so in a very vague way. There is a reason for this. Patients are being polite. They do not want to challenge the GP, who did the prescribing. This tentative way of raising concerns about medications provides a partial explanation for why side effects are massively underreported.

Kevin Dew and his colleagues have also shown how the reporting of side effects can be greatly enhanced if people know that they can report their concerns straight to the drug monitoring agencies and so not have to go through their GP,

For more information on the sociology of health please take a look at Kevin Dew's publications and research interests

Drug law reform, Stigma and harm reduction

Fiona Hutton

Associate Professor Fiona Hutton's work focuses on drug law reform, the impact of stigma on people who use drugs (PWUD) and harm reduction. She was one of the key advocates for evidence-based drug law reform in New Zealand during the 2020 referendum on legalising cannabis, and recent research in collaboration with KnowYourStuffNZ underpinned the law changes that legalised drug checking in the New Zealand context (Drug Checking in New Zealand: the 2020 and 2021 Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Acts, Drugs, Habits and Social Policy. 23 (3) 2022, pp. 200-206 ). Fiona is passionate about evidence based drug law reform and reducing drug-law-related (and other) harms related to the use of illicit substances.

Stigma is one of the main barriers to both reform and harm reduction and Fiona’s recent work has focused on developing theory around stigma in relation to new psychoactive substances, both in her 2020 book ‘Cultures of Intoxication: key issues and debates’, and a 2021 journal publication (The co-production of shifting intoxications: synthetic cannabinoids, stigma, risk and harm, Drugs, Education, Prevention and Policy, 29 (4), pp. 415–425 Stigma is also explored in her current research which gathers the stories of people who have received a conviction for illicit substance-related offences.

Fiona’s most recent research has explored access to and effectiveness of medical cannabis/cannabis products in the New Zealand context, working with cannabis advocates and ‘Green Fairies’ to improve availability for people who find cannabis helpful. Despite a legal medicinal cannabis scheme and recent legislation, many New Zealanders are still unable to access cannabis products and this is something this research would like to see changed.