Eric Y. Tenkorang is Associate Professor of Sociology, cross-appointed to the Division of Community Health and Humanities at Memorial University. His research interests are in the areas of global and population health. Dr. Tenkorang’s previous work examines population dynamics and health outcomes in limited-resource settings. This includes an investigation of the sexual and reproductive health of vulnerable and marginalized populations in HIV-endemic parts of the world, mostly sub-Saharan Africa. His most recent research has explored links between gender-based violence and health outcomes. Appointed a Carnegie African Diaspora Fellow at the Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research (ISSER), University of Ghana, Eric spent parts of his sabbatical leave as a Diasporan Fellow at the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health, University of Ghana.
What first sparked your interest in sociology?
Unlike most other academics I know, my interest in sociology happened entirely by accident. I had completed my General Certificate Examination (Advanced Level) in Ghana and applied for admission to the computer science program at the University of Ghana. I received my admission letter with excitement, especially given the competitive nature of university admissions. However, my excitement was cut short when I discovered the university had assigned me courses in sociology and other social science subjects instead of computer science. I thought this was an error until I was told the university assigns courses based on grades and availability of space. My heart was broken, but I changed my mind immediately after taking my first undergraduate sociology course. The course was revealing – it exposed me to theories of social organization. Something felt right, and I knew I was home. In hindsight, instead of accident, perhaps I should describe my meeting with sociology as divine intervention.
How has your own experience influenced your academic career?
To date, a large part of my academic career has focused on understanding the social and behavioral aspects of HIV/AIDS—a disease often described as the worst public health crisis of the twentieth century. My interest in researching the social dimensions of HIV/AIDS stemmed from a personal experience at the Fevers Unit of the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital (Ghana’s largest and leading teaching hospital) where HIV-positive persons are admitted, counselled, and treated for opportunistic infections. I accompanied a friend to the Fevers Unit during my undergraduate school years, and as we approached, I wondered why the unit was isolated from the rest of the hospital. My friend provided what I thought was a good response by indicating the seclusion helped patients from being noticed, especially given the stigma of HIV. But his response made me curious. The scene was unpleasant as we entered, and I was surprised by the number of people I saw. The memory of the pain on the faces of the affected and the loud screams of those who had just been informed of their new HIV positive serostatus lingered with me. More problematic was the fact that the medical staff whom I thought should provide help to patients tried to maintain a social and physical distance. As a young undergraduate student, I started thinking about how I could make a difference; even then, I knew sociology would provide the theoretical and methodological tools to do so. Since then, I have never looked back and have sustained my research interests in this area. I strongly believe I have both a professional duty and a moral obligation to contribute to an ‘AIDS-free’ generation through research and advocacy.
What’s the weirdest/strangest/most surprising place you’ve ever found yourself in the course of your research?
I wouldn’t say weird, but certainly surprising. I once visited a village in an African country to collect data. This was a project designed to inform young people, to motivate and equip them with skills they needed to negotiate safer sex, especially given the high HIV prevalence in this area. We (team members) interviewed youth about their sexual behaviours, including the motivations for and barriers to condom use. I was surprised to hear some youth in the village would use condoms, wash them and preserve them for subsequent sexual encounters; some even lent their condoms to friends. This was heart-wrenching, but it pointed to broader questions of access and the cost of purchasing condoms in the community.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a SSHRC-funded project exploring the help-seeking behaviours of female survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) in Ghana. The project aims to uncover the individual and structural/institutional barriers to help-seeking by Ghanaian women with experiences of IPV. This project is an extension of a previous SSHRC project on the socio-cultural underpinnings of marital violence in Ghana.
What has been the biggest success to date for you personally?
This is a difficult question, but perhaps the answer is the impact of my research. I often receive email messages from young, mid-career and, in some cases, senior scholars around the world asking me to share manuscripts I have written and engaging me in ways I find fascinating. I am beginning to develop research connections based on these contacts. I am gratified that people care about my work and are interested and engaged with it. For me, this represents success. It encourages me to do more!
What is your philosophy in regards to research?
The global health problems I research are very complex, requiring interdisciplinary theoretical and methodological approaches. As a quantitative sociologist, I have often leaned towards positivist approaches to understanding the social world, although I have also come to appreciate the limitations of these methods and, over time, have incorporated interpretive approaches. I find these approaches mutually reinforcing; they are necessary to create the methodological nuances needed to address complex global health questions. Theoretically, my work draws on various disciplines, including sociology, psychology, demography and epidemiology. In other words, my philosophy is interdisciplinarity, driven by the kinds of questions I ask.
What sort of impact do you hope your research will have?
As a researcher, I have always thought about ‘impact’ as the end-product of my research. Two main things come to mind in thinking about the impact I envisage for my work. First, my research should engage and inspire my peers both in and outside the discipline, and second, my work should affect the lives of the people I research, the community and the society at large. I strongly believe research should affect the ‘researched’ positively, and our impact as researchers should be measured or gauged by the extent to which we are able to inspire positive changes in our communities through research and advocacy. I am already doing this but will quickly acknowledge that a lot more needs to be done.
How do you feel your work is helping to boost Memorial’s national and international reputation?
My work is inherently international and has involved frequent travel outside Canada, mostly to Africa. As a result, I have built collaborations and networks with faculty and students at African universities and across the globe. For instance, through a Canada-Africa Research Exchange Grant and with the support of the Dean of Arts, I was able to bring a faculty member from the University of Ghana to Memorial University on a research exchange. I have been asked to sit on research and editorial boards, including the Research and Grant Institute of Ghana. I have served as associate editor for BMC International Health & Human Rights and a guest editor for the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. In Canada, I served on CIHR’s Institute Advisory Board (IAB) for Health Promotion and Prevention and am currently sitting on the IAB for Gender and Health. I was privileged to be part of a team of experts put together by Status of Women Canada and Statistics Canada to develop a survey on sexual victimization among postsecondary students in Canada.
How is this research helping address the needs and opportunities for our province?
While my research is largely international, I have forged strong research relationships in the province. For instance, I am one of the co-investigators on a research team examining stigma and discrimination against cancer patients in Newfoundland. As elsewhere in Canada, cancer is a significant health problem in Newfoundland, but not a lot is known about cancer-related stigma and discrimination in the province. The research team seeks to fill this gap. We have received seed funding from the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute to commence exploratory work. We are hopeful that preliminary findings will motivate a larger study, as this has significant policy implications for cancer survivors and people living with cancer in Newfoundland.
How are you supporting the next generation of researchers and HQP (highly qualified personnel)?
Supporting the next generation of researchers is crucial. For me, this begins with encouraging, advising, and nurturing young academics and researchers to pursue their interests and dreams. My graduate students are spread across various disciplines, including sociology, gender studies, medicine and the interdisciplinary program. I have supported them financially to attend academic conferences and have co-authored peer-reviewed manuscripts with them. More often than not, when we think about ‘highly qualified personnel’, we tend to forget or marginalize the experiences of undergraduate students. Some few years ago, I encouraged one of my undergraduate students to submit an abstract she had written for my seminar course to an international conference in Paris, France. Her abstract was accepted, and I was happy to have mentored and provided financial support for her participation in what she later described as the best learning experience of her life.
What is the one thing you would like the general public to know about your research?
My research emphasizes the idea of impact and change. More specifically, it grows out of an interest in bringing equity and social justice to marginalized and vulnerable populations of which women, youth, victims of violence and HIV positive persons are a significant part. It strongly reflects my vision of bringing positive change to individuals, communities and societies.