Researcher Profile: Dr. Tara Cookson, Emerging Scholar Award Winner


The connecting thread in my research is a deep interest in the political economy of care, especially as it relates to inequality. I’ve recently finished my PhD at the University of Cambridge Department of Geography, where I was a Gates Cambridge Scholar. My dissertation analysed Peru’s conditional cash transfer (CCT) program, which incentivizes low-income women to ensure their children’s use of health and education services. CCTs currently dominate the development landscape. In focusing on the institutional organization of women’s ‘mundane’ experiences as CCT recipients, my findings revealed how well-intentioned social inclusion policy came to have unintended exclusionary impacts. Through this research I hope to construct a nuanced critique that also advances a constructive vision of more just social policy.

I arrived at Cambridge as a newcomer to geography. My background was decidedly interdisciplinary – I hold an MA in Women and Gender Studies and a BA in International Relations and Spanish. Despite how daunting the disciplinary shift felt at the time, I really wanted to work with Professor Sarah Radcliffe, who came to be my supervisor. Her research, and also the research of feminist geographers of care, had informed my previous work – which is a testament to the reach of geography’s contributions. And it’s fair to say I’m a convert! Geographical research elevates and enriches the broader debates around inequality, capitalism and development that I’m interested in.

My research seeks to contribute to feminist geography in two ways. Firstly, it emphasizes feminist geography’s significant perspective in broader multi-disciplinary discussions regarding contemporary welfare and development. Geography is an oft-overlooked element in gender analyses of CCTs. In contrast, my research underscores how the unevenly developed landscapes over which Peru’s CCT “Juntos” is implemented shapes the program’s gendered impacts. In addition to geography forums, I also present this research at Latin American Studies conferences and collaborate on multi-disciplinary publication projects. The second way my research contributes to feminist geography is through a relatively distinctive methodological approach. Institutional ethnography (IE) seeks to view institutions through women’s everyday experiences of them. While IE developed out of sociology, its multi-cited orientation is well suited to geographical projects. An IE approach allows feminist geographers to “map out” the power relations and bureaucratic procedures that propel forward institutions such as Juntos, all the while guided by a concern with women’s wellbeing. This particular methodological contribution yields data which centres women’s perspectives and enriches our understanding of gender and place.

Having just finished my PhD, I’m keen to pull threads from the dissertation and re-work them for publication. I used this generous award to present a paper titled ‘A critical exploration of poverty reduction and wealth production in Peru’ at the 2016 American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting in San Francisco (March 27-April 2). The panel I presented on was called ‘Uneven spatialities and the production of poverty knowledge’ and was hosted by the Relational Poverty Network, a collaborative scholarly community that seeks to disrupt normative understandings of and approaches to poverty.

Dr. Tara Patricia Cookson
twitter: @tpcookson