Anthropology student examines potential effects of Brexit on women

Kaschak Grant enables Mary O'Neill to travel to Northern Ireland

Mary O'Neill plans to return to Northern Ireland during the winter break to conduct more Brexit research. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.
Mary O'Neill plans to return to Northern Ireland during the winter break to conduct more Brexit research.
Mary O'Neill plans to return to Northern Ireland during the winter break to conduct more Brexit research. Photography: Jonathan Cohen.

An anthropology student is conducting timely research in Northern Ireland, thanks to a grant established by an acclaimed Harpur College alumna.

Mary O’Neill spent the summer of 2018 in Belfast and other areas of Northern Ireland, studying and interviewing women about the potential ramifications of Brexit – the impending withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. The 21-year-old was able to take the trip after receiving the Dr. Ellyn Uram Kaschak Summer Research Grant.

“The Kaschak Grant was a great opportunity because I’m interested in women and feminist theory as an area of research,” O’Neill said. “It gave me a way to narrow in on something I’m interested in and do research that’s relevant, important and helps people.”

Kaschak ’65 is an award-winning psychologist, author and human rights advocate who established the grant to help Harpur undergraduates conduct research in the field of social justice for women and girls.

O’Neill learned about the grant while working for Harpur Edge, which administers the award. The grant paid for O’Neill’s airfare and lodging.

“I was champing at the bit to get my toes in the (research) waters,” she said.

The Brexit project is the culmination of a journey that brought O’Neill back to her hometown of Binghamton after spending her first two years of college at the University of Buffalo.

“I was stubborn and wanted to go away to school,” she admitted. “I didn’t want to stay at home.”

But O’Neill eventually realized that not only could she save money by attending Binghamton University, but she could potentially prosper in a strong Anthropology Department.

“Anthropologists study everything,” said O’Neill, now a senior in the department’s 3+2 master’s program. “I love history, science and English. Anthropology is so inter-connected in every area of knowledge. That was the pull for me.”

O’Neill began working with Professor Thomas Wilson, who specializes in international borders and the anthropology of European integration. Wilson challenged O’Neill to develop a project that would emphasize her sociocultural-anthropology skills.

“He always asked me: ‘What do want to do? What do you want to focus on?’” she said.

O’Neill’s award-winning decision: How Brexit will affect the human rights and social progress of women in Northern Ireland.

Brexit is a shorthand term (“Britain” and “exit”) for the United Kingdom leaving the European Union – a political and economic partnership of 28 countries. In June 2016, voters in the four UK countries (Britain, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) opted to leave by a 52-48 percent count. The UK is scheduled to depart in March 2019, although that date could be extended.

Some expect Brexit to have an effect on the UK economy, trade, immigration, citizenship, higher education and transportation. It could even lead to greater border controls and reignited violence between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (an EU member).

“Brexit is an interesting political phenomenon – particularly in Northern Ireland – because it deeply affects everyday life,” O’Neill said. “It was a perfect opportunity to study this as an anthropologist. Just talking to people about how their lives will change in the face of Brexit gave me a lot of insight.”

O’Neill admitted, though, that her ethnographic study was overwhelming when she arrived in Belfast in June 2018.

“I thought: ‘Wait! Where do I even start?’” she said. “So I focused on setting up interviews and living in Belfast. I interacted with women in different areas and talked with them about their lives.”

Be it rural women or women working in politics and public service, O’Neill learned that “a lot of anxiety” was present as the Brexit divorce date approaches.

“The women I talked to were not hopeful about the prospects of Brexit,” she said.

In fact, O’Neill said she heard only one potential positive development – expressed sarcastically to her.

“I was told that the tampon tax might be repealed because it’s (EU-based),” she said.

Women living in rural regions of Northern Ireland could especially be hurt by Brexit, O’Neill said. The rural regions receive extensive financial support from the EU and the UK has yet to say if it will replace the funding. Other areas that could suffer range from farming to cell-phone plans to transportation into Dublin and the Republic of Ireland, O’Neill said.

O’Neill plans to return to Northern Ireland over the winter break to continue her research.

“The more I learned, the more questions I had,” she said. “The more people I met, the more people they would send me to. Brexit changes every week, every day. I’m looking forward to checking in with people I’ve talked with before.”

Although Brexit often takes a back seat to other stories in the U.S. media, O’Neill is able to use social media to remain informed and updated. She follows EU and UK representatives on Twitter and has become Facebook friends with several sources.

“It’s nice because I still can be engaged with the issues,” she said, adding that social media “changes the game” in today’s anthropology. “I still message a policy analyst when I see a new development.”

O’Neill said she hopes to publish a scholarly article soon with Wilson, who she called “absolutely brilliant.”

“He’s been so helpful,” she said. “He went out of his way to work with me when I had never taken a class with him.”

Wilson said O’Neill represents “the best we have in undergraduate students.”

“She is conscientious, responsive to intellectual and professional challenges, and willing to push herself and others for the greater good of the campus community,” he said.

The Brexit project would prove challenging for seasoned researchers, he added.

“She has done so with her usual modesty, social grace and dogged scholarly determination that promise great things for her future studies and career,” he said.

Outside of the Brexit project, O’Neill continues to work at Harpur Edge, which provides students with the resources to enrich their college experience and helps prepare them for graduate school and careers. O’Neill is the senior student associate, working 15-20 hours a week helping to program and plan events. Next year, she will serve as the office’s graduate assistant as she completes her master’s degree.

Working at Harpur Edge forced O’Neill to quickly acquire campus knowledge.

“I’ve learned so much about Harpur College and the different opportunities available to students,” she said.

O’Neill, who enjoys knitting and reading, is also secretary of Democracy Matters, a campus club focused on campaign-finance reform. She has even lobbied at the state Assembly.

“Getting big money out of politics is one of the best ways to increase equality and representation in politics,” she said.

After Binghamton, O’Neill hopes to pursue a doctorate at a school abroad – perhaps back to Belfast at Queens University – and then a career in academia. She believes her return to Binghamton was “the best decision I ever made.”

“I couldn’t imagine my life if I hadn’t transferred,” she said. “I would not be on the same path. It’s been a great snowball that just keeps going.”

Posted in: In the World, Harpur