PhD Research Proposal


Draft Research Proposal (2018) 

A person who experienced homelessness as a youth, still tenses their muscles in self-defense as they sleep every night, an embodied habit from sleeping outside for years. A young adult who grew up in multiple foster homes, feels restless in homes, jobs and relationships after a few months because that is the longest they have only ever lived in one place. This phenomenon is what I call the ‘embodiment of transience’, a manifestation of lingering displacement compressed over time and held in the body. I aim to develop this theory in my PhD research, a participant action research project with touring musicians. This work builds on my award-winning MA thesis at York, which examined the embodiment of transience with former youth in care.  

For my PhD research I want to understand what we can learn from musicians in two groups: the more intentionally hyper-mobile touring artist and the precariously transient (musicians struggling in the gig economy (Zendel, 2014)), with the understanding that there can be overlap between and significant differences within individual experiences in these groups. My analytical lens will be using mobilities (Cresswell, 2010), feminist economic geography (Massey, 2012) and critical health geographies (Atkinson, 2013). I am seeking to understand both the negative social, emotional, and physical implications of the long-term effects of transience and hyper-mobility, and ultimately, what can be learned from the hyper-mobile that is beneficial, resilient and innovative.

The primary population I intend to work with is working-class Canadian musicians on tour. As a former Vice-president of a music industry association, Music Yukon, and a musician myself, I understand the particular struggles of Canadian touring musicians in terms of spatiality, embodiment, and power relations. For example, American and European artists have much less distance to cover between venues on tour, while in Canada a 16-hour drive to the next show is just an average cross-country tour. Canadian geography thus produces more travel per show than almost anywhere else in the world.

I want to develop research about the embodiment of transience with musicians that can ultimately  benefit many others who experience transience. I will facilitate focus groups and interviews with co-researcher musicians in Ontario and the Yukon to learn how people care for themselves and their well-being within experiences of (dis)placement, precarity, touring and hyper-mobility. Building on the success of my MA (Merhar, 2017), I will continue to do participant action research, allowing the specific research questions to develop more fully in collaboration with those who have signed on to this project. Beginning with initial interviews, a series of focus groups will be developed, and additional analysis and data from musicians will be collected using audio diaries while on the road while on tour.

This research will be conducted in Whitehorse, Yukon and Toronto, Ontario. I choose these communities to work in as part of my positionality as a white researcher; moreover, these are communities I know, having lived in each city for over a decade. I firmly believe that Northern research must be done by Northerners and Whitehorse is my home. I seek to counter the extractive research industry of southerners entering the north, gaining data, then leaving weeks later with little benefit to struggling communities (Moffitt, Chetwynd & Todd 2015). Toronto is the music capital of Canada, with head offices for FACTOR, SOCAN and innovative arts health initiatives like Artists Health Alliance that can provide potential partnerships, insights, and resources. My goal in all my research is to leave co-researchers in a better place than when I first encountered them by working collaboratively with communities and the power of self-determination (Wilson, 2008).

I choose University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment to study at for a number of reasons. I found Dr. Nancy Worth’s research on youth, transitions and becoming theoretically useful in my MA, and contacted her in the summer of 2017 to talk about a potential PhD. Her Gen Y at Home project exploring precarity, autonomy, and housing among GTA millenials is an excellent recent exploration of themes that are very relevant to my framing and understanding of precarity. The Waterloo-Laurier Joint program in Geography also has a number of faculty exploring international migration, transportation, tourism and critical health geographies that can greatly assist in informing a broad and thorough literature review on the embodiment of transience. I appreciate the innovative atmosphere at University of Waterloo, and feel this environment can best support my innovative research.

For my MA, I worked with 15 former youth in care as co-researchers ages 18-29, in Toronto and Whitehorse. The Moving Home Project exploring the embodiment of transience emerging from the child welfare system garnered significant public interest. Co-researchers were on Metro Morning on CBC in Toronto in June 2016, and the project had a total of 4 public art shows sharing the findings and artwork created during our explorations on what sort of people the child welfare system has inadvertently created through repeated moves of home and school. A mini plain-language version of my thesis was created in collaboration with 5 co-researchers, and 500 copies have been distributed, with a second printing forthcoming. I won the Paul Simpson-Housley MA York Geography Thesis Award, and was nominated for the York Thesis Award as well as the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies MA thesis award. I was the best-funded student in the department, having a SSHRC, NSTP, ACUNS Northern Resident Award and 27K in combined external project funding from the Ontario Child and Youth Advocate and Yukon Child and Youth Advocate, the bulk of which was to pay co-researchers an honoraria of $800 each for their contributions.

Climate change and its myriad effects, the gig economy, housing costs rising much faster than income, there are numerous reasons why precarity, movement, and displacement will be continuing in the future, and why understanding the internal lived experience impacts of long-term hypermobility is needed. My goal in this research is to write a book from my dissertation that can have relevance to other researchers and policy-makers. Many scholars study the effects and experiences of migration, and explore ideas and practices of travel, and better ways to move people through cities. There is a significant lack of research on the long-term consequences of frequent precarity and hyper-mobility at an emotional, relational and lived experience level. I hope to begin to address this gap through this project with my co-researchers. My opening statements in this proposal concerning the embodiment of transience as experienced by the formerly homeless and former youth in care were not just attention-grabbing literary devices. These are real people who struggle to stay in one place and trace this internal struggle to their multi-layered experiences of transience. I am fascinated by this question of how transience lingers and stays in the body, and I hope you see value in it as well.