Essay Prize Winners and Nominees

24 May 2021 -

The DHS student representative, Tai Cossich has been in short conversation with the 2020 DHS Student Essay Prize winner, Karen Fraser on her research and writing experience and future projects. The DHS Student Essay Prize 2021 awaits applications until 30 June.

Hello, Karen! Congratulations on your winner essay — ‘That link to life, so to speak’: Older Women’s Expressions of Keeping Through Photographs. Could you introduce us to the topic of your essay, and tell us a little bit about the quote in the title?

My essay, an edited version of my master’s dissertation, looks at the role of objects in constructing the home in seniors housing, formerly known as sheltered housing, in Brighton and Hove. Conducting an ethnography of three older women, I was able to engage in conversations that revealed how objects, particularly photographs, are integral to the women’s identities as guardians of family memory and history. The quote in the title is from one of my participants, and she said this phrase while talking about what she would take with her if faced with an imminent move to a nursing home. I love this quote, because it alludes to the critical role a seemingly inanimate object can play in keeping our connection to others alive.

The topic is something I had been thinking about since I helped one of my grandmother’s cousins and her partner move into a smaller residence with more care in Vancouver, Canada. I was living in a basement suite of their home at the time and helped them sort through objects they had kept for a lifetime. So many things carried connections to family history and seemed to be cherished parts of my cousins’ identities. I became very interested in studying material culture in the home and working with theory to understand practices of keeping later in life.

It's been a few months since you received the DHS Essay Prize in September 2020. What have you been up to since receiving the prize? Do you plan to extend research in the topic of your essay? Would social distancing have impacted your research and the writing of the essay in any way?

September 2020 was also the month when I started my first teaching contract at the University of Alberta, so it was quite exciting! I instruct two courses on the fashion industry: the first is an introduction to fashion as a business and as a scholarly subject, and the second investigates the economic, social, and environmental significance of the fashion industry in a global context.

I’m also beginning a PhD in human ecology this autumn, and I had initially thought I would investigate photographs of objects in digital environments and how people relate to an artefact that is presented to them in an online setting.

However, since I’ve started teaching, my interests have been shifting somewhat, and I’ve become very curious about the circulation and consumption of second-hand clothing in the global economy. I think the research I did for ‘That link to life, so to speak’ will inform my future work, but I envision taking a much wider perspective.

Social distancing would have impacted my research and writing process greatly. As an international student, I may have had to return to Canada right at the time I was scheduled to begin conducting interviews with my participants. Speaking with my participants in their homes was an important part of my method, as it enabled me to see how the women displayed the objects and observe how they interacted with them. I don’t know how comfortable the women would have felt speaking with me by video chat. As well, it was invaluable to be living in the same place where I was conducting research so that I could absorb more of the cultural environment in Brighton and Hove.

How do you feel about writing? And how do you feel about writing about Design History? Do you have any writing habits you would like to share?

I feel that writing, as hard as it can be sometimes, is where I learn the most. It is a process through which I really begin to understand a topic, and it is also how I gain greater self-knowledge. Writing is one of the best tools I have to access insights about myself and the wider world.

Something that I love about writing about design history are the lenses we are invited to look through when researching an object. Thinking about the production, mediation, or consumption of an object brings in different questions and conceptual frameworks that can help us study people’s relationships with things using routes that might be less travelled or even obscured.

In terms of writing habits, I think anything that gets you started is great. When I was writing my dissertation, I found that tapping notes into my phone while on the go was really useful when it came time to sit down and write. As well, whenever I am stuck and beginning to overthink things, getting up and moving around often makes a big difference. I’ve learned that I can leave something partway through and the momentum I have won’t be completely lost.

What advice would you give to students interested in Design History?

It’s not so much advice as an enthusiasm for what future researchers of design history will uncover. Thinking back to the first seminar of the MA History of Design and Material Culture course at the University of Brighton, my idea of what was possible to study within the discipline grew enormously through a discussion of Ben Highmore’s concept of design culture without designers or objects. When we consider design as a process, a practice, and a culture, the range of topics to investigate expands, and we can also revisit studies of design and find the possibility of entering into conversations from a different perspective.

And what are you reading at the moment?

I am alternating between two books: A Promised Land by Barack Obama and Loved Clothes Last by Orsola de Castro.

Thank you so much for speaking to us! The DHS is now accepting entries for the 2021 Undergraduate and Postgraduate Essay Prize, I am sure this interview will inspire great submissions.


Want to contribute to the blog and newsletter? Contact us


Keep informed of all Society events and activities, subscribe to our newsletter.