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3 Sep 2014

Distinguished Dissertation Award 2014: Grappling with Homelessness


Distinguished Dissertation Award 2014: Grappling with Homelessness. Photo is courtesy Nigel Dickson.

Ottawa - A rich and gritty study of intentional homeless communities such as shanty towns and tent cities, has won this year’s 2014 Distinguished Dissertation Award from the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies.

Eric Weissman’s (PhD Indi) multi-media, interdisciplinary work “Spaces, Places and States of Mind: a Pragmatic Ethnography of Liminal Critique,” was done through Concordia University’s Individualized Study program. It is the first time a dissertation completed through an independent study program has won the award. At 53, Weissman is the oldest recipient in the award’s history. He began his PhD program at age 48 and successfully completed it last year at the age of 52.

Weissman used video and social media in addition to conventional research and writing in an attempt to prompt observation, discussion and debate about the relationship between housing and homelessness and the role these communities play in society and political structure.


Eric Weissman’s (PhD Indi) multi-media, interdisciplinary work “Spaces, Places and States of Mind: a Pragmatic Ethnography of Liminal Critique,” was done through Concordia University’s Individualized Study program.
Photo is courtesy Jerome Crowder.

It is an intensely passionate work from an academic who once grappled with periodic homelessness and addiction. “I decided to channel what had been a personal disaster into a form of insight that would allow me to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in the area of homelessness,” he says.

The dissertation compares state-sponsored housing programs with alternative forms of intentional communities.

“My doctoral work employs an interdisciplinary approach to critical and reflexive storytelling from the view of participants to understand how residents of such communities establish commitments to one another and housing activism,” Weissman says. “It’s about how self-worth and democracy go hand in hand and play a role in alleviating the conditions of chronic homelessness.”

The work examines the issue from multiple perspectives including political science, public policy, urban planning and mental health.

“This is a perfect example of what intellectual life is supposed to be about,” says Dr. David Cecchetto, an assistant professor at York University’s Department of Humanities and member of this year’s judges’ panel. “It is truly the best a person can ask from a PhD.” Cecchetto won the CAGS prize in 2011.

Weissman describes his work as ongoing and reflexive. He spent time in transitional communities in Canada and the United States observing and writing a book about them.

“The book was sent back to the villages I was writing about to encourage new conversations which became later chapters in the dissertation - a sort of virtual and digital fieldwork,” he says.

Listen to this CBC Radio interview with Eric Weissman:

Weissman’s approach recognized that the complexities of homelessness cannot be organized into traditional factual document. It was a project that fit in well with Concordia University’s philosophy.

“I am thrilled that Eric has received this honour for his incredible work”, says Paula Wood-Adams, Concordia’s dean of graduate studies. “We believe in taking risks in our research and asking the tough questions. Eric's dissertation is a perfect example of the kind of interdisciplinary scholarship that we foster in our Indepdent graduate program.”

His work required a combination of flexibility, creativity and academic rigour that marks the best of what graduate studies have to offer.

“Dr. Weissman’s work sets a high standard for what it takes to approach this topic with discipline and creativity,” says CAGS president Noreen Golfman. “It is a compelling and useful resource.”

Most recently, Weissman held the position of Visiting Scholar at the Institute for the Medical Humanities at the University of Texas. He is currently on the faculty of the College of New Caledonia in Prince George, BC later this year. You can read more about Dr. Weissman’s work here.

Weissman will receive his award in October when the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies holds its annual conference in St.John’s, Newfoundland.

“The CAGS/PROQUEST-UMI Distinguished Dissertation Award began in 1994. It recognizes doctoral students whose dissertations make an original contribution to their academic field. Two awards are offered each year: one in engineering, medical sciences and natural sciences; and one in fine arts, humanities and social sciences.

The Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) brings together 58 Canadian universities with graduate programs and the three federal research-granting agencies, as well as other institutions and organizations having an interest in graduate studies.

For more information:
Gail Dugas, CAGS Communications