Concordian Eric Weissman turned personal disaster into award-winning ethnographic fieldwork
Eric Weissman, PhD 13, will make his virtual homecoming as part of the Lived Experience event being put on by Concordia’s Individualized (INDI) program. Weissman is one of North America’s pre-eminent scholars on homelessness, housing, mental health and substance use.
Part of what makes his research so poignant is that it is informed by his lived experience of periodic homelessness and severe substance use disorder more than two decades ago. With the support of friends and family, and government-funded long-term rehabilitation, Weissman was able to turn his life around, get clean and parlay his struggles into a remarkable academic career.
“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 impact of INDI
Weissman conducted his ethnographic research on the relationship between housing and homelessness as part of the INDI program beginning in 2009. He built on nearly a decade of researching and filming his subject matter, employing an interdisciplinary approach to critical and reflexive storytelling.
His PhD dissertation resulted in two visually compelling and thought-provoking books, based on his experience in homeless communities in Toronto and Portland, Oregon. It also won him several prestigious honours such as Concordia’s Distinguished Doctoral Dissertation Prize and the 2014 Canadian Association for Graduate Studies Distinguished Dissertation Award for the areas of fine arts, humanities and social sciences.
Weissman attributes his success and subsequent achievements to his time in the INDI program.
“Concordia was the only university that took a chance on me. My supervisor led me in the right direction, helping me to understand the difficult link between theories, activism and advocacy,” he says, referring to Greg Nielsen, professor of sociology and anthropology.
“He helped me to incorporate the edgy footage from my fieldwork shot in tough places, and my own troubled past, in critical and thoughtful ways that invited people to understand the link between place attachment and community, even for the most vulnerable among us.”
An ongoing commitment to communities living on the razor’s edge
Since leaving Concordia, Weissman has researched and taught in communities and institutions across North America using photos, video and interviews to understand the narratives on how social policies are designed for — and experienced by — people living in a state of homelessness. His 2017 book, Tranquility on the Razor’s Edge, probes emerging solutions to homelessness and assesses their strengths and weaknesses.
Currently, Weissman is an assistant professor of social science at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John and acts as the principal investigator of a pan-institutional study of postsecondary student homelessness across Canada. The study seeks to find solutions to the precarious living situations that effect hundreds of thousands of people.
“Every day in Canada, four to five per cent of students attending college or university face housing precarity. We have people sleeping in their cars, and that number is increasing because of the affordable housing and rent difficulties,” Weissman reports.
“This project is about concretely understanding what students need at specific universities, and then more generally, what students need so that we can put the money in the right places to build programs that will help.”
Find out more about Concordia’s Individualized (INDI) program or join the Lived Experience Conversation Series with Eric Weissman on January 19.