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Debunking Rural Myths and Getting Students into the Field

Dr. Mark Skinner scrutinizes our assumptions about the changing nature of rural populations and the role of voluntarism in responding to their rising healthcare needs

Dr. Mark Skinner
Dr. Mark Skinner

This article is also available in Showcase magazine, featuring leading-edge teaching and research at Trent.

With an aging Canadian population and fears of ballooning healthcare costs, political parties from both ends of the political spectrum have embraced voluntarism as a potential solution to budget shortfalls. Whether from the conservative notion of limited government or the social democratic ideal of grassroots community empowerment, both sides view volunteers and voluntary organizations as key pieces of the healthcare puzzle.  But according to Dr. Mark Skinner, a health, rural and social geographer, neither side has a critical perspective of what voluntarism is nor how it works. “There’s this sort of blind endorsement that voluntarism will work: that people will be there to take care of each other, that they can help out and that they will. There is very little consideration for how to enable the voluntary sector to succeed.  The mentality seems to be ‘We’re going to dump everything on to you and hope that it works out.’”

Dangerous assumptions about rural communities

Professor Skinner’s research aims to address this knowledge gap and to highlight the lived experiences of rural populations and the barriers to voluntarism in their communities. “On the one hand, the issue is under-researched both academically and in terms of healthcare policy, yet on the other it is almost over-emphasized within the broader public discourse and popular myths of how communities work. The assumption about rural communities is that they take care of themselves: they’re strong, they’re resilient, they’re more caring, and so on. But when you look at that in an empirical sense, it’s not necessarily true, and those sorts of assumptions can be very dangerous if they show up in public policy.”

Getting students out into the field

Prof. Skinner’s work brings him and his students into close contact with the communities they study, ranging from Peterborough and the Kawarthas to other parts of rural Canada, France and New Zealand. “Geography tends to be more applied,” he explains. “The applied nature of geography, whether it’s human or physical geography, comes out of a real tradition of field-based natural and social science that’s made us different from other disciplines. Geographers need to go to where the populations they are studying live; they have to go to where the processes they are studying actually take place. If you don’t want to get your boots dirty,” he adds, “then this probably isn’t the discipline for you.”

Prof. Skinner was recently appointed co-investigator on a new three-year Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) funded project: "Refining a Decision-Support Model for Siting Palliative Care Services in Rural Canadian Communities". Led by colleagues at Simon Fraser University, the $301,227 project will include case study work on rural palliative care in Ontario.  According to Prof. Skinner, this type of research is essential to understanding the problems facing Canada’s aging rural communities and to developing realistic policies to support them. “There’s no magic bullet to the rural voluntarism issue because you can’t just say to one community: ‘create this.’ What we can do is engage, at a community level, with the people involved to understand the actual challenges and priorities they are dealing with, because often it’s those individuals who are the source of innovative solutions to the problem.”

Posted on Tuesday, November 15, 2011.

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