Concordia profs get $5.4M to lead projects

Photo by robWall on Flickr

Seven-year projects will look at aging and technology & northern and rural communities

In late August, the announcement was made that two Concordia professors had received $5.49 million in funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to lead a pair of massively collaborative projects on social change.

Mapping cross-generational attitudes towards technology

Technological progressivism has taught us that technological progress is equated with improvement. Yet the only individuals who have come through the technological revolution – those decades of breathtaking change between room-sized computing machines to ubiquitous apps – are the baby boomers and their immediate predecessors, and what their attitudes and experiences have to teach us is what Concordia Communications professor Kim Sawchuk’s 7-year, $2.99m grant will be looking for.

“I’ve been working on issues of digital technology for the past 20-25 years,” said Sawchuk of the Ageing, Communication, Technologies (ACT) initiative. Sawchuk’s career, as well as her experience as a feminist media scholar and collaborator in community-based learning projects, will help her in her work. “This project to a certain extent is an extension of that kind of impetus but as well is taking into account two really large megatrends in our society,” she said of her passionate curiosity on the effects of the circuit on the modern man.

Like Reimer, Sawchuk’s project will cross international boundaries and include dozens of fellow researchers in opening up the discussion on how older adults use technology in a rapidly aging society with an increasing predominance towards mobile and digital communication.

A good part of the research will be gathering data and dispelling stereotypes. Sawchuk is keen to clear up misconceptions tied to digital ageism. (Or, as she puts it, the idea  “that young people are just born knowing computers and digital media and older people aren’t.”)

Take for example the notion that all seniors past a certain cutoff like retirement – what she calls the ‘grey zone’ – are homogenous without taking into effect their sometimes widely different experiences with gadgetry. By carefully untangling concepts and analyzing them, the researchers aim to explore the shifting and fluid concept of age under  various cultural, national, and urban/rural contexts.

“The whole question is not to just accept age as a demographic variable [but] to really ask the question: how do we age well, and [about] the art of aging given our new media environment,” she said.

“We’re asking questions on how we can set up intergenerational connections between different types of users of technology and within media studies [and] trying to shift the focus away from a preoccupation on young people,” she said on the importance of giving the experiences of older adults proper weight.

She’s quick to point out that contrary to popular beliefs, plenty of studies show septuagenarians, octogenarians, and beyond taking up computers – and others show them choosing to consciously opt-out. By finding out how seniors are integrated into network societies, and how they are not policies and strategies, could be developed in increasing their inclusion at a time given when the digital landscape forces certain exigencies forced on them.

“You can say they’re cynical [about modern technology] but what it is is that they’re realistic about what it will do for them. Older people don’t tend to care about cool, they tend to care about whether or not it is useful for them to maintain connections and to get what they need to get done done,” she said. Yet sometimes this leaves them behind the curve; for example as when care facilities relying on landlines to keep families in touch while communicating with the families themselves have shifted to Skype and webcams.

“It is asking the question of what it is they actually do know that may have to teach us about the present technologically-saturated world we live in.”

RPLC: The importance of Rural and Northern communities

Retired Concordia sociology professor William Reimer, meanwhile, will be using his 40+ years of experience with Canada’s northern and rural communities to begin work on systemizing and exploring the complex workings of such communities and their relationship with urban centres for the sake of better, more informed policy formulation.

Photo by robWall on Flickr

Reimer said the $2.5 million received for his project, called the Rural Police Learning Commons (RPLC), won’t be so much for research purposes as for the fostering of partnerships with other organizations and individuals.

His research over the years has pointed to a decline in small communities (a wide definition that, albeit roughly, encompasses small and oftentimes unique population centers outside the commuting sheds of metropolitan areas) far from cities – save those tied to mining, oil, or special touristic advantages like Banff. The amenities of rural communities rely much more on the delicate balance of  social services pooled from their limited population. Should these shrink, a domino effect takes hold. “That whole package of services starts to shrink and gets into a kind of a cycle whereby that makes the place less attractive and in turn more people move out – [it becomes] a cycle of decline which can be very problematic for [their] sustainability,” Reimer said.

Meanwhile rural areas adjoining urban centres are facing the opposite problem, as a population eager to leave the cities stream in a move that alters their fundamental identities as rural areas.

Seeing as these regions serve as crucial intermediaries for Canada’s food production and resource extraction, understanding the reasons behind the changes and better understanding northern and rural groups are of critical importance.

Reimer says his experience working with large networks will aid in increasing cohesion between the approximately 30 institutional participants and 60 individual partners. As he describes it, his job will be figuring out how to operate under such circumstances.

“The problems of simply coordinating and communicating become extremely difficult, but on the other hand there are tremendous advantages because it means we get the opportunity to find out what’s happening in Norway or Italy or the U.S. and so on, and what they’ve done that have ameliorated some of the challenges we’re facing here and vice versa.”

To build and maintain connections, Reimer and those working with him plan to attend many conferences and events and videoconferencing when physical presence is impossible. He calls the project a tremendous opportunity for students and participating faculty, and says the efforts will be very interdisciplinary. Not only sociologists will be present, but social workers, economists, those in the health and environmental sciences, and geographers, among others.

“A lot of these types of analysis require perspectives from these many different disciplines,” he said, highlighting the special role of both Canadian and Quebecois participation..

“From a research point of view it’s a fantastic blessing,” he said of our geographical breadth. Canada’s sheer size means “you can’t have a one-size-fits-all type of policy, because of variation”

Quebec, aside from its colourful range of unique rural communities, is also the only province with a rural policy governing the political and economic relationship between government and non-metropolitan regions.

“There’s plenty that’s going on in Canada, and particularly in Quebec, that’s of great interest to other countries.”

The project’s seven-year lifespan may seem like a long time, but it’s really just the beginning.

“If we’re looking at the long term consequences, our objective would be to establish a robust partnership network that will go on beyond the seven years. We don’t know what the pressing issues are going to be in seven years. We can’t set up a mechanism to address them all but what we can do is set up a mechanism whereby the people who are most likely to be informed and the people we want to train for this uncertain future are well equipped,” he said.

“Our objective is to make sure there’s a strong, well connected, informative, collaborative network established by the time our seven years are up.”

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