Living and looking for lavatories: student’s essay on IBS research wins national award

A University of Sheffield PhD student has won this year’s Economic and Social Research Council’s 2016-17 writing competition for her essay on ‘living and looking for lavatories’.

Lauren WhiteWhite Rose Doctoral Training Centre student Lauren White, of the University’s Department of Sociological Studies, impressed the judges with her honest and direct way of addressing one of society’s last taboos - the experience of using public toilets, especially for those who have a bowel condition.

The essay explained her PhD research, focusing on what it is like to live with and manage the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), particularly in the place where symptoms are mostly managed: the bathroom.

Her research has shown that for the 20 per cent of the population who live with IBS, the anxiety of their symptoms means that knowing the location of the nearest public toilet is crucial.

Although they may seem like a mundane ordinary thing, Lauren argues that toilets are actually the backstage of social life, where we enact social performances such as holding on until another person has left the toilet, waiting until the hand dryer goes on or blaming the time spent in the toilet on a fictional queue.

In her essay Lauren writes: “The coping strategies and challenges faced in the day to day life of people who live with these conditions are underappreciated, hidden, and crucially, misunderstood.

“Some may laugh at the fact I talk about poo and toilets in my academic life. There may be banter in the bowels, a joke that I need a colon in my future research papers or conference presentations. But is the difficulty of living with an unpredictable bowel in an unaccommodating society really that funny?”

Lauren received a £1,000 cash prize at an awards ceremony that took place at the Royal Society, London. She also took part in a masterclass on 'how to get published' delivered by SAGE Publishing, and her competition entry will be published in print and online.

The ESRC competition, in partnership with SAGE Publishing, celebrates and fosters the writing skills of the next generation of social scientists. This year students were asked to write 800 words about why their research matters, and how it helps us make sense of and understand the society in which we live. There were nearly 300 entries which demonstrated the incredible breadth and depth of social science research taking place across the UK. Topics ranged from Big Data, to climate change, class, immigration, dementia, the economy and education.

Tash Reith-Banks, Production Editor for the Guardian's Science desk, and a judge for the competition said: “I loved Lauren’s piece – it really took me with it imaginatively and intellectually. By turns very human and academic, it was persuasive as well as informative.”

“It’s been a great pleasure to be involved for a second year with the ESRC Writing Competition in partnership with SAGE Publishing,” added Dr Alan Gillespie, Chair of the ESRC.

“The standard of writing was exceptional, with entrants using a range of styles to convey their research. Congratulations to all who made the final shortlist and in particular to our winners, who impressed the judges with their skills in communicating their research in an engaging, original, powerful and thought-provoking way.”

Miranda Nunhofer, Executive Director at SAGE Publishing, said: “Due to the complex nature, and often-diverse subject matter, the value of social science research is too often overlooked or called into question, despite its significant impact on society.

“As such, the social sciences are an incredibly challenging field for voices, especially those early in their career, to be heard. Awards such as these go a long way to both underscore and recognise the longevity of the social sciences and the importance of their societal value. SAGE sends our congratulations to all those shortlisted and to our winners today.”

Lauren’s article has been published by The Guardian.

Additional information

The University of Sheffield

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