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Assoc Prof Karen Nairn Professor MA(Cant) PhD(Waik) DipTchg

Dunedin Campus
Tel +64 3 479 8619


Karen Nairn is based in Ōtepoti/Dunedin in the south of Aotearoa. As a former high school geography teacher with a passion for environmental issues, her research path has evolved from working with high school students to her current project with activists in their 20s/early 30s, documenting their visions for change in Aotearoa. She has been employed at the University of Otago for the past 22 years, currently based at the University of Otago College of Education where she is a Professor.

Watch the Inaugural Professorial Lecture

Teaching areas

  • Gender Issues in Education
  • Youth Studies
  • Qualitative Research
  • Writing for Publication


Research interests

Book cover for Fierce hope.Youth activism in Aotearoa. A book by Professor Karen Nairn
Fierce Hope. Youth Activism in Aotearoa (Bridget Williams Books)

Karen's research is youth-focused. The book Fierce Hope. Youth Activism in Aotearoa (Bridget Williams Books) reports her recent Marsden-funded research about what inspires young people to join others to create social change. The book is about six youth-led groups working on a range of fronts: honouring indigenous land rights, progressing policies for a zero carbon future, challenging sexual violence and gender-based harassment, rethinking gender and sexuality and what counts as 'justice', and addressing social inequalities in Aotearoa.
Watch video describing Fierce Hope

An earlier Marsden-funded project culminated in the book Children of Rogernomics: A neoliberal generation leaves school. That book was about young people coming to adulthood in the wake of New Zealand's neoliberal reforms, connecting their accounts with the wider social and economic story.
Find out more about Children of Rogernomics

Karen introduced a Young women in leadership programme for year 12 and is currently researching the programme's influence on young women.

Research interests include:

  • Youth-led activism
  • Post-school transitions and young people's identities
  • Neoliberal policies and their impacts on young people
  • Academic writing for publication
  • Gender, sexuality, 'race' and youth cultures
  • The politics of voice
  • Feminist issues in education
  • Critical theories
  • Qualitative research methods, including visual methods
  • Secondary and tertiary education practices

Young Activists Research Project

What inspires young people (aged 18–29+) to join others to create social change?

Karen is Principal Investigator with this project.

Find out about the Young Activists Research Project


Showden, C. R., Barker-Clarke, E., Sligo, J., & Nairn, K. (2023). The connective is communal: Hybrid activism in online and offline spaces. Social Movement Studies. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1080/14742837.2023.2171387

Sligo, J., Besley, T., Ker, A., & Nairn, K. (2023). Creating a culture of care to support rainbow activists’ well-being: An exemplar from Aotearoa/New Zealand. Journal of LGBT Youth, 20(3), 502-523. doi: 10.1080/19361653.2022.2077274

Showden, C., & Nairn, K. (2022). Activist hope: Rejecting naivete, refusing despair. Proceedings of the Sociological Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (SAANZ) Conference: Now what? Reimagining hope, 'truth' and equality. Retrieved from

Nairn, K., Sligo, J., Showden, C. R., Matthews, K. R., & Kidman, J. (2022). Fierce hope: Youth activism in Aotearoa. Wellington, New Zealand: Bridget Williams Books, 300p. doi: 10.7810/9781990046681

Nairn, K. (2022, September). Fierce hope and research with young people. University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. [Inaugural Professorial Lecture].

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