Undergraduate Dissertation Prize


You may be aware that university staff are undertaking industrial action to improve the poor pay and working conditions that are rampant in the higher education sector. For members of the University and College Union (UCU), this is currently happening via a marking and assessment boycott (MAB). As many students will not, therefore, have had their dissertations marked properly or at all, we have decided to suspend the DevGRG dissertation competition for the time being so as not to disadvantage those students.  We will restart the competition after the MAB has ended. We anticipate that the competition for dissertations from 2022-23 will run in parallel to the 2023-24 competition, and we will offer a prize for each year.  We are sorry for the change of plan and, like you, look forward to a successful resolution of this industrial dispute.

The DevGRG  offers an annual prize for the most promising dissertation concerning ‘Development Geographies’. The author of the winning dissertation receives a £100 book voucher.

The prize is open to any student taking a first degree in geography. Students taking joint degrees are eligible to enter for the prize, provided that at least half their course is in geography. It is suggested that no Department of Geography submits more than one dissertation for this prize. Dissertations will be evaluated by three members of the DevGRG Committee.

Dissertations, along with a copy of the dissertation instructions/guidelines given to students, should be sent by email as a PDF and should include “DevGRG UG dissertation submission” as the email subject. Please also include student details, and who to contact to announce the winner.

Submissions should be sent to:

j.t.lingham@sheffield.ac.uk (Jayanthi Lingham, Dissertations Officer, DevGRG)

or k.wilson@bbk.ac.uk (Kalpana Wilson, Co-Chair, DevGRG)

Deadline for Submissions : See above


Congratulations to our 2022 Undergraduate Dissertation Prize Winners! Once again, the submission standard for this year’s entries was very high – well done to all entrants for doing such impressive work.

Winner: Sam Street, UCL

Navigating the maelstrom: The conjunctural geographies of Nigerian online freelancers

Navigating the Maelstrom is a highly original dissertation that is both theoretically advanced and empirically grounded. It advances the emerging area of labour geographies on the ‘gig economy’ by moving past the Western academic focus on the ‘proletariat’ lens of unstable work to also engage in the ‘generative possibilities’ of recentering young Nigerians as protagonists in their own narratives of economic agency. We have published Sam’s blog post about his dissertation just below.

Highly Commended: Megan Clark, University of Edinburgh

When the taps run dry’: living with crumbling water infrastructure in high-density suburbs and informal settlements in urban Zimbabwe

When the taps run dry is an excellent piece of work, both detailed in theoretical and empirical analysis and clear and engaging in tone. It brings together under-researched concepts of ‘everyday practices’ and ‘heterogeneous infrastructure configurations’ to make a strong and original contribution to research in development geographies, through exploration of the notion of ’embodied infrastructure’. The qualitative research in urban Zimbabwe uncovers some fascinating findings.

Blog Post: “Navigating the maelstrom: The conjunctural geographies of Nigerian online freelancers”

By Sam Street, UCL

My dissertation analysed the experience of remote gig work amongst 35 young Nigerian online freelancers. Remote gig work is gig work performed online, remotely; usually through online marketplaces or platforms which connect remote gig workers with those looking to purchase their services (i.e. clients). Remote gig work has two broad forms: online freelancing and ‘microwork’. My dissertation focuses on the former. Online freelancing typically relates to the performance of skilled services and longer, more complex tasks – such as copywriting, logo design, voiceover art or website design.

Because remote gig work platforms operate globally, clients from more wealthy countries can take advantage of wage arbitrage, often paying a fraction of what it would cost for the same service carried out by a freelancer in their own country or one of similar wealth. Within NGO circles, this is seen as a developmental positive – as online freelancers in the Global South can access an earning potential that would be hard to match in their country’s employment market. However, scholars have warned of the dangers of global labour markets for workers’ rights. Extant geographical scholarship of remote gig work frame it as an alarming globalised extension of the erosion of ‘fordist’ employment relations since the 1970s following the emergence of neoliberal forms of economic organisation. This process is captured by the now popular term in social science, ‘precarity’ – a condition of financial and social insecurity that has resulted from neoliberal economic reforms. Remote gig workers are characterised by scholars as victims of this process – as a helpless, slavish, low skilled and poorly paid global underclass of workers who often complete tasks alone at home for very little pay, meaning they have to work long hours at their computer screen without any human contact, resulting in loneliness, ill health and precarity. I found evidence of all of the above lamentations for remote gig work’s non-standard form, but I followed others in suggesting that this theoretical frame of precarity offers marginal support to analyses of Global South contexts – particularly in Nigeria where the informal economy accounts for over 40% of GDP and irregular forms of informal (self)employment are the norm.

What the extant literature did not cover in much detail was the subjective experience of remote gig work. To me these stories seemed incredibly powerful and captured my geographical initiative. The freelancers I spoke to, who were nearly all under the age of 30, explicitly narrated their remote gig work as a form of ‘digital hustle’ – a speculative strategy of income generation in which they were turning to online global labour markets to find opportunities that to them were lacking, or unavailable, within Nigeria. Most of my respondents entered into remote gig work after unsuccessful job searches, or, having obtained a job, found the salaries would not even cover the bills. These freelancers were forced to adjust their expectations of adulthood and settle for remote gig work in the absence of decent employment opportunities. But for some respondents, online freelancing was more than a fall back economic choice, it was a decision that for them had cultural significance. Their choice to pursue a non-traditional career in a country that idolises hard work and stable, waged employment in traditional sectors was radical, and often went against their parents’ wishes. I saw how these freelancers were forward-thinking and technologically minded hustlers, who rejected outmoded paths into adulthood imposed on them by their parents and wider society. By accessing remote gig work, they forged new cultural identities centred around the generative possibilities of digital connectivity and a tenacious ideology of ‘working smart’, reaching across space to write their own stories of ‘being Nigerian’, as they refused to have their goals and life aspirations limited by precarious contexts and overbearing outmoded cultural norms. My intentions here were not to discount the abhorrent realities of remote gig work, but instead to draw attention to how Nigerian remote gig workers were the authors of their own narratives, and not helpless precarious subjects edged into online freelancing by paralysing socioeconomic forces.

I also heard powerful accounts of freelancers sharing work, tips, and experiences. Some freelancers even worked as a team, allocating work to one another to suit skillsets, and hanging out together in co-working spaces. To me these agentive acts had a significant spatial resonance given the globalised nature of freelancers’ work. I saw how Nigerian online freelancers actively produced local spaces of support, solidarity and enterprise, doing so to reduce their precariousness, shore up their sense of place, and increase their income. It seemed that in the absence of formal structures that foster security, companionship and identity in global remote gig economies, Nigerian online freelancers forged their own localised networked structures of support and enterprise that both protected them and fostered a sense of collective identity. In many ways they made their own, subjective, or even collective, versions of global remote gig work – they decided, or at least had a say in, their experience of online freelancing. Thus these acts were not just the reflexive adaptions around structures that some authors suggest; they were, in their own right, the production of dense and powerful local geographies.

This analysis, coupled with that of the diverse agencies of hustling online, led me to offer my own theory of agency in remote gig work – one that was attentive to what is distinctly spatial about this form of work. Through the hustle remote gig workers reach across space, disembedding themselves from ‘problematic’ local labour markets to access earnings online, in acts of economic, political and cultural agency. Remote gig work is therefore a spatial fix – i.e. a solution to economic and cultural adversity that transcends national scale – workers reach into global ‘virtual’ spaces to produce an altogether different scalar plane from which to materially (and otherwise) improve their lives. So, here, remote gig workers can be seen to ‘actively produce economic spaces and scales’ through accessing remote gig work, transforming extant interpretations of remote gig workers as desperate, powerless actors at the very bottom of global value chains, to instead understand how Nigerian online freelancers are savvy, rational, global ‘hustlers’. But having disembedded, or unstuck, themselves from unfavourable local employment contexts, freelancers are struck by the aggressive iniquities inherent in online global labour markets, and so must simultaneously produce more locally bounded spaces, embedding themselves in dense local social and virtual networks of support and enterprise in order to successfully navigate the maelstrom of working in a global labour market. Thus, the agency of Nigerian remote gig workers is necessarily conjunctural: it is expressed in a duality of spatial and scalar forms through a ‘conjuncture of tethered and untethered relationships with space’.

If you’re reading this while writing and planning for your dissertation, I wish you the best of luck! Don’t worry if you’re finding it tough – I certainly did! Trust your ideas, do lots of reading, and listen to your supervisor – If you do this you will likely find, as I did, your dissertation to be by far the most rewarding part of your degree.

Previous Winners:

  • 1995: Ming-Lee Lim (Oxford) ‘Kotadesasi Zones: A New Hypothesis on Megalopisation in Asia: A Case Study of Beijing, China’
  • 1996: Rachel Jenkings (University of the West of England) ‘What role does female participation play in the effectiveness of community development? A Case study of the Christian Community Services Department in the Machakos Diocese of the Church of the Province of Kenya’
  • 1997: Rebecca Dell (Birmingham) ‘Visions of Africa: Pictoral Images in Oxfam Publications’
  • 1998: Haleh Darwazeh (University College, London) ‘Micro-Credit Enterprises and Women’s Empowerment’
  • 1999: Simon Hayden (Oxford) ‘Fair Trade Coffee as a Strategy for Human Development in Rural Peru’
  • 2000: Alice Pettigrew (Durham) ‘Shaka to Shakespeare: An Examination of the Relationship between Education and Identity in Twentieth Century KwaZulu-Natal’.
  • 2001: Samantha Shepherd (UWE) ‘The Attitudes of Indigenous People to Their Environment: A Study of the Bajau Community in Tukangbesi Archipelago, Indonesia’.
  • 2002: Emilie Filou (Oxford) ‘Camels, Marabouts and Docs: Health Care Provision for Tuaregs in Northern Niger’.
  • 2003: Sarah Rothmell (Birmingham) ‘The Connectivitea of Britain and Sri Lanka’.
  • 2004: Edward Poulter (Edinburgh) ‘Challenging the Epidemiological Transition: An Investigation into the Influence of Urban Slum Environments on health with Kibera Slum, Nairobi’.
  • 2005: Harriet White (Edinburgh) ‘Governance and performance: A case study of identity construction among two Karen groups’. [List of shortlisted dissertations]
  • 2006: Siobhan Luikham (UCL) ‘Why don’t the kids go to school? A comparative study of the constraints on achievement of free compulsory universal basic education (fCUBE) in Ghana from a household perspective’. [List of shortlisted dissertations]
  • 2007: Ruth Pearse (The University of Edinburgh) ‘The gender politics of credit control: Social appropriation of the mobile phone in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania’
  • 2008: David Parry (Queen Mary UoL) ‘Motivation as assemblage: sustainable agriculture in rural Mexico’.
  • 2009: Richard Mallett (UCL) ”It’s like one leg is in the village, one leg is here’: Transition, Connection and (Uncertain?) Aspirations among Urban Internally Displaced Persons in Kampala, Uganda
  • 2010: Thomas Grant (Exeter) ‘Making way for Arecelor Mittal’.
  • 2011: James Mak (LSE) ‘Spaces in the (Re-) construction of Post-conflict Cambodia.’
  • 2013: Sally Millett (Durham) ‘Representing and Encountering Tanzania: Locating Agency in the Discursive Formation of Nature and Poverty in Western ‘Voluntourism’ Narratives’
  • 2014: Christopher Blois-Brooke (Durham) ‘Postcolonial destabilisation of expert knowledge through Theatre for Development? A spatial analysis in (and away from) Lusaka, Zambia.’
  • 2015: Matita Afoakwa (UCL) ‘Self, Status and Survival: The experience of return migration of professionals to Accra, Ghana’.”
  • 2016: Daphne Lee (UCL) ‘Ageing environmental relationships in Singapore.’
  • 2017: Clara Ida Bartram Gurresø (Edinburgh) ‘Why do People Volunteer? A Critical Study into the Motivations of International Volunteers.’
  • 2018: Miles Harrison (UCL) Empowering the poor?’ The effects of formalising informal settlements in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.’
  • 2019: Lucy Petty (Newcastle) ‘Responsible Volunteering: A Viable Solution? A Postcolonial Reading of International Volunteering in Jambiani, Zanzibar.’
  • 2020: Rai Saad Khan (University of Oxford) ‘Lahore’s Performative Statehoods: a study of the form and practices of statehood of the Walled City of Lahore Authority in Pakistan’

The information provided will be treated in the strictest confidence. Relevant data, including name, contact details, topic and affiliation, will be processed under legitimate interest for the purposes of this dissertation prize only. Names and affiliations of prize winners will be made public on our website and will be kept on record as part of the Society’s historical archive. More information on our privacy policy can be found on our website.