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PhD students

Pieter Etienne de Villiers

BA(Hons) (Otago)

Walking and Talking: Exploring Social Connection via Chronotopes of Tramping, among Older Adults in the Waikato

The overall aim of my research is to use ethnographic and phenomenological research methods to investigate the ways in which the nexus of place, temporality, and narrative functions to shape experiences of social connection and wellbeing. Specifically, I will investigate this in relation to the practice of communal tramping within Waikato-based tramping groups that are primarily made up of older adults. A key focus of the research will be the role of the environment, the social aspect of the activity (including practices of talking storytelling while walking) and the life-stage of the participants. Attention will be given to how each of these aspects is tied into wider experiences of connectedness to place and history, as well as to other individuals. To extend this, an anthropological lens will also assist me to pay attention to the role of the cultural histories of the Waikato, specifically, the cultural values and ontologies of the participants, how these shape their relationship to the local and national landscape, and to non-present others, as other key parts of the experience of connectedness and wellbeing through tramping.


Supervisors: Dr Susan Wardell and Associate Professor Christina Ergler (Geography)

Yi Li

Yi Li imageBA(Hons) (Otago)

Exploring Geographic Happiness: Through an Ethnography of Migrants Engaged with Eco-creative Practices in Iceland and New Zealand

Establishing the ethnographic investigation of migrant adaptation, happiness and connection to place in New Zealand and Iceland at a time of uncertainty, the project aims to gain an insightful enquiry into migrant eco-creators engaged with ecological-artistic or eco-lifestyle/space design. The study explores how long-term migrants in two island countries negotiate a sense of emplacement, social connectedness, and wellbeing through eco-creative practices. Via both sensuous geographies and the anthropological lens, the research combined soundscape, the representation of landscape and visual ethnography to conduct multi-media, multi-sited, and multi-sensory methods to capture and analyse the eco-creative practitioners' enveloping experiences and Spatio-temporal events. The project will assess the correlation between spatial transformations, the human-natural relationship, and the land-body intimacy, as the embodiment of migrants' pursuit of wellbeing and sustainability.

This research is funded by a University of Otago Doctoral Scholarship.


Supervisors: Dr Susan Wardell and Associate Professor Christina Ergler (Geography)

Duke McLeod

Duke McLeod imageBA; PGDip (Otago)

Enjoining the Good, forbidding the Evil': About Vegan Muslims and Islamic Veganism

This interdisciplinary mixed methods project explores relationships between religiosity/spirituality and lifestyle choices. In particular, this project draws from anthropological and sociological methods to investigate and illustrate Muslim attitudes towards veganism. Leading questions of this project are: 1) What are Muslim conceptions of veganism, and how do they differ between vegan and non-vegan Muslims? 2) What are Muslim perceptions of a vegan lifestyle, and how do they differ between vegan and non-vegan Muslims? 3) How does effective vegan advocacy work look like in Muslim contexts? The overarching aim is to create a narrative of Muslims' journeys into veganism, including their struggles and solutions, and thus create information that may be useful for vegan advocacy work in Muslim contexts.

This project was inspired by the researcher's own experiences as a vegan on the spiritual path of the Sufis and is supported by a University of Otago Doctoral Scholarship.


Supervisors: Associate Professor Greg Rawlings, Dr Susan Wardell, Dr Bryndle Hohmann-Marriott (Sociology)

Julia Watkin

Julia Watkin profile photo.BA, MEd (VUW Wellington)

Restorying mental health with young people in Aotearoa New Zealand

When it comes to the story of youth mental health in Aotearoa, the media use words like struggles, risk, wait times, distress, crisis. This research wants to rewrite the story – to restory youth mental health. It is a patchwork of narrative, ethnography and grounded theory, and it started out by asking young people what mental health means to them and how are they learning about it? That led to discussions about how mental health should be defined and what education and services young people want to support their well-being. This research is funded by a University of Otago Doctoral Scholarship and has also been assisted by a U3A Otago 150th Postgraduate Award (2023).


Supervisors: Dr Susan Wardell, Dr Matthew Jenkins (Department of Psychological Medicine)

Anna Williams

Anna Williams profile photo.BTech, MPhil, PGDip (Massey University)

Pākehā journeys of wellbeing – a study in identity, belonging and connection in contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand

Important shifts towards reflecting bicultural nationhood, involving changes in policies, public and private life are occurring in Aotearoa New Zealand. Some New Zealanders are experiencing this contemporary moment as an unsettling time. This research explores experiences of cultural identity and belonging for British descendents living in Otago and Southland, considering how that supports their mental wellbeing and connections with others. The research will consider the relevance and application of different models of health and wellbeing – including the Māori wellbeing framework, Te Whare Tapa Whā – in the lifeworlds of the participants, and work towards developing expanded understandings of the role of cultural identity, in the life and wellbeing, of settler populations.


Supervisors: Dr Susan Wardell and Dr Richard Egan

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