Amy Donovan (BA Hons'12)

Finding a fresh perspective


SOSA profs are super helpful. They’re all really approachable and willing to be engaged in students’ interests, if you approach them.


Most students do a semester abroad to see another part of the world, make some new friends and come back with a fresh perspective.

For alumna Amy Donovan, her third-year semester abroad – at Keele University in the United Kingdom – ended up being life changing.

She’d already declared social anthropology as her major, but in the UK, she was exposed to a side of social science she hadn’t seen before – “non-representational” theory, which blends human geography with anthropology and sociology, and deals with people’s sensory experiences in their surroundings.

One course in particular “gave me an introduction to the theory I used in my honours thesis when I came back,” Amy explains. The pivotal assignment: “We had to pick a place and look at how people have been inspired by it over the years. I chose the Cape Breton Highlands.”

In fact, Amy had firsthand knowledge of that area – every summer during undergrad, she worked as a park interpreter in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

This project became the foundation for her undergraduate honours thesis at Dal. Amy looked at how people have felt about the land in Northern Cape Breton following the expropriation of land that happened around the creation of the national park about 75 years ago.

“It was really a lot of fun doing the project,” she says, “and it led into what I’m doing for my master’s thesis.”

Amy decided to stay at Dal to do her master’s, working with Dr. Brian Noble, with whom she took a number of courses throughout undergrad. “He was the most engaged in the topics I’m interested in,” she says. “We’ve just always seen eye to eye.”

From the Cape Breton Highlands to the Scottish Highlands

While abroad, Amy travelled to many cities in the UK, including Edinburgh, where she met a friend of Dr. Noble’s—an activist and academic—who also influenced her research. Through him, Amy became interested in the Scottish crofting movement, now the basis for her master’s thesis. Later this year, Amy plans to return to Scotland to do field research.

There’s a clear parallel between her undergraduate honours thesis and her master’s: the crofting movement, Amy points out, exists to address the injustices of the Highland Clearances, when Scottish “communities were taken by the English government.”

The Scottish Highlands were cleared for sheep, she explains, and the people permitted to stay were assigned small plots of land called crofts that they rented from wealthy landlords. “Crofting is the story of millions of people dispossessed of land,” Amy says.

But what really interests her is what’s happening now: “Communities are taking back collective control of land. And they’re moving to non-oil-based energy, putting up windmills and planting trees to reforest land cleared for sheep. It presents some very interesting ideas around, for example, indigenous land claims and sustainable community development.”

“It’s funny that for my undergraduate thesis, I was looking at how people were disempowered,” she adds. “But now I’m looking at ways people are finding to re-empower themselves. I’m really excited about it.”