Trent sociology professor, Canada research chair, and institutional ethnographer, Dr. Naomi Nichols, has won the Dorothy E. Smith Scholar-Activist award for her activism and scholarship examining institutions affecting the lives of youth and those experiencing homelessness. That work started during her PhD, where she worked with a local youth shelter to study the coordination of services for youth at-risk of homelessness and create programming that filled local service gaps. Later, Nichols led several participatory youth research teams who investigated how different institutional policies and processes shaped their lives. That research resulted in a book titled, Youth, School, and Community.
“Young people spend most of their time in public institutions (e.g., in schools, using public transit systems). And so, as a team of youth, professors, and youth-workers, we looked at those institutions and the affordances and constraints they enabled in young lives, paying attention to how these shaped their developmental trajectories. We flipped the gaze from focusing on youth as problematic or at-risk towards the inter-institutional practices that create conditions of inclusion and exclusion in young people’s lives.”
Bringing institutional ethnography to the city of Peterborough
Here in Peterborough, Prof. Nichols is examining the local response to homelessness. The federal government has mandated that every community must use “coordinated access”, a process of matching who is homeless to the housing resources available. The goal of coordinated access is to create transparency for how housing resources are provided, but this bureaucratization has caused the system to become confusing and frustrating for those who need housing. Furthermore, although the state has mandated coordinated access, it has not funded the creation of sufficient housing resources to enable the matching process, which is at the centre of the model.
“We did six months of desk research to lay out precisely how coordinated access is designed to work and how many housing resources we have municipally to support those in need”
When they completed this phase of the research her team created a zine, titled Get in Line, that explains in plain language how the current system operates. Prof. Nichols says it’s flying off the shelves. The zine outlines how Coordinated Access is designed to prioritize some people for housing supports above others using a complicated matrix that incorporates a person’s age, their health challenges, how long they have been homeless, their current sleeping arrangements (couch surfing vs unsheltered), and when they were added to the list. It describes what housing resources are available and uses fictional profiles to show how people might be matched to these resources. In this way, the zine makes an incredibly complicated system more understandable. But as the team has been learning more about how coordinated access is meant to work, they have been hearing that it seldom works as designed.
The next step for her team is to undertake a systematic investigation of coordinated access—seeking to understand how the model works in practice and for whom. The findings from this next phase of research will inform community conversations and planning for making equitable local changes. Nichols expects that the findings from this next phase of the project will inform local efforts to lobby higher levels of government for additional housing resources.
“We need to be able to systematically demonstrate that we can't do what we're being asked to do without some kind of state intervention. We need housing stock that is part of the commons.”
Continuing the tradition of Dorothy E. Smith
As a field of study, institutional ethnography (examining how institutions exert power over people’s lives) feels new, but Dorothy E. Smith pioneered this branch of sociology in the early 1970s.
Traditionally, sociology was used to study people’s behaviour and build knowledge that was then used to govern: to rule. Smith flipped that idea and used sociology for the benefit of the citizenry. She focused on institutions and how they work rather than focusing on people.
An example will help:
Early in Dorothy Smith’s academic career, while running the Women's Research Center at UBC, she worked with women living in rural mountain towns and found they had no safe way to push their baby carriages down the mountainside. They risked their safety and that of their babies just to get to the corner store or to a friend’s house for tea: they needed sidewalks. Smith worked with the women to study the city’s zoning processes. They learned that city planning worked for the men involved in the local logging industry, it worked for moving goods, but it was unsafe for women. The city was only serving half the population. Having acquired institutional knowledge about local city planning Smith was able to effectively lobby the city to get sidewalks.
In the same way Dorothy E. Smith used her understanding of city planning to benefit rural mothers who needed sidewalks, Prof. Nichols hopes to use her growing understanding of state responses to homelessness to benefit people experiencing homelessness in Peterborough as well as those providing housing services.