Award-winning research means impactful change for young unemployed men

Published On: 17 April 2023|

Award-winning research means impactful change for young unemployed men

The critically important work done by Dr Hannah Dawson (left), Social Science Researcher at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS) at the University of the Witwatersrand, won her a trophy and R30 000 in the Emerging Researchers category.

Organised jointly by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and Universities South Africa (USAf), the CEOs’ annual award acknowledges scholars who have made outstanding contributions to the social sciences and humanities through their research. The 2023 theme was Social Justice, and, according to the HSRC, the adjudication panel identified innovative research projects that focused on social justice theories and practice, with the aim to achieve transformative impact in communities – socially and scientifically.

Dr Dawson’s transformative research has made a meaningful and impactful social justice change in the lives of unemployed and marginally employed young people, especially young black South African men.

The young academic is a key member ofthe Future of Work(ers) research project at SCIS. Working with a team, Dr Dawson has developed evidence to influence policy agendas and ensured public debate and engagement about changing technology, the future of work, and implications for inequality. She is also leading the Centre’s new Intersectionality Project.

She was nominated and endorsed by Professor Imraan Valodia (right), Professor of Economics, Pro Vice-Chancellor: Climate, Sustainability and Inequality, and Director of the SCIS who said: “Two things make for interesting innovative work; when someone challenges the perceived view of something and when someone gives us new insights into a particular problem.

“Hannah’s work is really innovative on both grounds. Firstly, we talk a lot about the future of work and how patterns of work are changing, but we don’t often enough think about that issue from the labour supply side. Hannah’s work among young South African men and their changing perceptions of work challenges us to think about that in a new way.”

Professor Valodia said that there was a perceived view that most unemployed people “are really not doing anything, and that they are not interested in work. “Hannah’s research among young, mostly black, South African men shows us that the problem is more complex than it’s made out to be. The work that she’s done gives us insightful information about how we should think about unemployment among young South Africans.”

Saying he was very proud to have her based at the SCIS, he added: “I cannot think of another young academic in South Africa who is looking at these problems in as interesting and as innovative way as Hannah. Hers is a richly deserved award.”

Over 30 nominations were received for this year’s awards, which were presented in four categories: Emerging Researcher, Mid-career Researcher, Established Researcher, and Research Team.

The Emerging Research category received a trophy and a cash prize of R30 000, while the Mid-career Researcher category received a trophy and R40 000. The winning Established Researcher got a medal and R60 000, while the winning Team walked away with a trophy and R40 000.

In a video shown at the Awards event to celebrate the winners (Wits won in the Mid-career Researcher and the Emerging Researcher categories), Dr Dawson said: “My work has evolved over the years. I began doing research on protests and young people’s political engagement and action. My focus shifted to aspects of work and unemployment.

“When I think about how aspects of my work coalesce, I think the big question that I’ve been grappling with, for a long time, is: What are the social, political, and economic implications of very high levels of unemployment or mass joblessness? On the inverse, I’ve asked: When large numbers of people don’t have access to a waged life, what forms of life / work emerge in that context?”

Thanking everyone in her acceptance speech, Dawson told an applauding audience: “I feel very proud to be part of a collective community of social scientists and humanities scholars in South Africa. Having had the privilege of studying in another country (she has a doctorate in Anthropology and an MPhil in International Development from Oxford University), I feel we are extremely lucky to have the social science community we have in South Africa. Thank you to that community – from which I’ve learned so much and hope to contribute to.”

While her research interests and expertise centre around youth marginality and unemployment, social stratification and inequality, the future of work, and new forms of social welfare in the Global South, she has also worked in policy research, analysis and advocacy in the fields of development, socio-economic rights, and poverty and inequality.

Dr Oliver Seale (far right) is the Director: Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme at USAf. He stood in for, and spoke on behalf of the USAf CEO at the Awards ceremony.

Professor Heidi van Rooyen (far left, above), the Group Executive at the HSRC’s Impact Centre, told Dr Dawson and two other finalists in the category, namely Dr Pedro Mihlali Mzileni, University of Free State, and Dr Nathi Zongozi, University of South Africa: “Your scholarship is deeply engaged and participatory.” She added that these scholars were all firmly in the mould of social activism as scholar-activists, driven by a bottom-up lived realities approach, and by a desire to support and create opportunity for those on the margins.

“Whether miners in Marikana or other communities beset with violence and conflict, the unemployed, marginally employed, students in general or students with disabilities… your work seeks to find ways to centre these voices.

“Through your work, their [these groups’] meaningful participation in social, educational, political and civic life is enabled. Your work reminds us how these kinds of grassroots social movements can radically alter or transform any situation, transform spaces of education and society – and can radically alter and transform our country. Your work reminds us how much this is needed now.”

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.