The School of Geography, Politics and Sociology

Staff Profile

Professor Cathrine Degnen

Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology


I am an anthropologist whose research is focused on how people create meaning and make sense of their social worlds in contexts of social transformation. I have explored this central interest in two key empirical areas: older age and everyday life, and the anthropology of Britain.  Within these two main fields, I have examined in closer details issues including personhood and the self; identity, belonging and social memory; and the creative affordances of place.


I am currently working with colleagues at Exeter University on an ESRC funded grant, Identity, Belonging and the Role of the Media in Brexit Britain (PI Dr Katharine Tyler, Exeter). This multi-sited ethnographic research (2018-2021) is exploring how everyday experiences of identity inform people's attitudes to immigration and their senses of belonging (or not) to local places, the nation and Europe in Brexit Britain. We are extending this research with a new piece of work, Identity, Inequality and the Media in Brexit-Covid-19 Britain, also funded by the ESRC (2020-2021). Covid19 and Brexit are two extraordinary events occurring simultaneously, and this second project permits us to examine the resonances and contrasts in the ways in which the inequalities of both have been framed by the media, as well as people's everyday experiences of both events.


I first joined Newcastle University as a Lecturer in Social Anthropology, and prior to this I was a post doc at Manchester University in the Social Anthropology Department. I received my PhD in Anthropology and my MA in Medical Anthropology from McGill University. 


Research Interests

My research focuses on how people create meaning and make sense of their social worlds in contexts of social transformation. I have built a significant body of work exploring this central interest in two key empirical areas: older age and everyday life, and the anthropology of Britain.


In my career to date, I have engaged with social transformation at multiple levels of scale, from the macro level of post-industrial rupture, to emergent shifts in social identity politics, to the development of new technologies (genetic and digital), to more micro levels of transformation, such as when our ageing bodies begin posing dilemmas for our sense of self and of personhood.

As an anthropologist and ethnographer, all of my research is grounded in a fundamental commitment to the lives of the people I have worked with, and to what matters to them in their everyday experiences. By attending to these experiences and forms of meaning-making in a richly detailed and finely grained way, I have contributed to debates in contemporary social theory on personhood and on self; on identity, belonging and social memory; and on the creative affordances of place.


My work on ageing challenges assumptions of later life in Western society, generally represented as a series of problems - medical, social, economic - to be solved. My research refocuses attention on the rich complexity and experiences of real people and their everyday lives as they age, highlighting the perspectives of older people themselves about what it is to grow older. This includes the importance of both social memory and of place for negotiating profound social transformation. It also includes developing a critique of an implicitly middle-aged, universalised self, one which does not allow for the distinctiveness and vitality of older age as lived that I argue demands recognition.


In Cross-cultural Perspectives on Personhood and the Life Course (2018) I build on and extend some of my research interests in later life to explore the category of the person across the life course. In it, I explore the question "what does it mean to be a person?". I consider how answers to this question vary cross culturally as well as through the life course. Broader theoretical considerations that stem from these questions include anthropological concepts of relatedness (how people create and dismantle connections with each other and the world as they move through the life course) and ontology (ideas about states of being and existence, with reference to how these might shift through stages of life).


Other recent writing projects include the 2017 Sociological Review Monograph, Reconfiguring the Anthropology of Britain: Ethnographic, Theoretical and Interdisciplinary Perspectivesco-edited with Dr Katharine Tyler (Exeter). My first research monograph,  Ageing Selves and Everyday Life in the North of England: Years in the Making (2012) , was reviewed in the Journal of The Royal Anthropological InstituteTimes Higher Education and Ageing & Society


Ethnographic areas: the north of England (South Yorkshire; Cheshire); Labrador.


Research projects

2020-2021 £475, 407. UKRI ESRC Covid19 Rapid Response. Identity, Inequality and the Media in Brexit-Covid19 Britain . PI Katharine Tyler (Exeter). Extending the work of our previous project on Identity, Belonging, the Media and Brexit, here we are using mass surveys and in-depth ethnographic fieldwork across England to explore how the covid19 pandemic is both creating new social inequalities as well as reinforcing existing ones. 

2018-2021 £753,728. ESRC. Identity, Belonging and the Role of the Media in Brexit Britain. PI Katharine Tyler (Exeter). This substantial piece of ethnographic and quantitative research is exploring how everyday experiences of identity inform people's attitudes to immigration and their senses of belonging (or not) to local places, the nation and Europe in Brexit Britain. As Co-I on this project, I have conducted 12 months of ethnographic participant observation in the northeast of England alongside my colleagues doing the same in Boston and Leicester (Dr Joshua Blamire) and in Exeter and Devon (Dr Katharine Tyler). 


2016-2018 £1.1 million. AHRC. Creative Fuse North East (CFNE). PI Eric Cross. I was Co-I on this project, leading an ethnographic work package exploring the anthropology of knowledge production via the ‘fusion’ of creativity, culture and digital technology, working with Dr Audrey Verma.

I have also been involved in a series of projects that develop my interests in ageing and in place:


2014-2017 £1.7 million. EPSRC Health and Wellbeing for the Built Environment Programme. "Mobility and Place for the Age-Friendly City Environment" (MyPLACE). PI Pete Wright.


2011-2013  £253,799. MRC Life Long Health and Wellbeing Programme.  "Ageing Creatively: a pilot study to explore the relation of creative arts interventions to wellbeing in later life". PI Eric Cross. See this link for more information on our research.


In 2009-2010, I collaborated with Michiko Nitta, a speculative designer and artist, on our shared interest in people's relationships (past, present and future) with nature as part of the Interventions Project. Please visit our project page for more details. The outcome of this project was exhibited 29th June - 9th July 2010, ExLibris Gallery, Fine Art Building, Newcastle University with other Interventions Project colleagues.


Other Expertise

I am co-convenor of the Anthropology of Britain network. The aim of the network is to provide a forum which will facilitate a greater level of communication between researchers with an ethnographic interest in contemporary British society. Visit our website here:


Postgraduate Supervision

I would be happy to discuss potential postgraduate supervision with any student interested in any of the following topics: ageing; identity and the self; anthropology and sociology of the body; social memory; experiences of place and of social change; new genetics and society; human relations with the natural world; anthropology of Britain; using ethnographic methods.


Currently supervising:

Bethan Griffith (ESRC NINE DTP funding) "Exploring the impact of social prescribing on health and well-being". Co-supervised with Professor Suzanne Moffatt.

Silvia Maritati (Newcastle University Research Excellence Academy funding) "Asylum, Inequality, and sense of place in peripheral Europe". Co-supervised with Dr Silvia Pasquetti.

Harris Paraskevopoulos (ESRC NINE DTP funding) "Experiences and Strategies in the Age of Precarity:  How do working class migrants respond to employment and legal status precarity in the UK?" Co-supervised with Dr Bethan Harries and Dr Jan Dobbernack.


Dr Ceri Black (ESRC 1 3 funded) "Virginity Practices: Sociological Perspectives on Agency, Identity and the Body". Co-supervised with Dr Steph Lawler.

Dr Anu Vaittinen (School of GPS scholarship funding) "Embodiment, Sensuous Experience and Mixed Martial Arts". Co-supervised with Dr Monica Moreno Figueroa and Professor Peter Phillimore.

Dr Deborah Burn (ESRC 1 3 funded) "The Social World of the Allotment". Co-supervised with John Vail.

Dr Constance Awinpoka Akurugu (funded by Ghanaian Ministry of Education) "Marriage, Power and Performativity: Theorising Gender Relations in Rural Northern Ghana". Co-supervised with Dr Carolyn Pedwell.

Dr Kate Gibson (ESRC funded) "Feeding the Middle Classes: Taste, Classed Identity and Domestic Food Practices". Co-supervised with Dr Lisa Garforth and Professor Alison Stenning.

Dr Simona Palladino (EPSRC and FMS funded) "Place Identity and Place Attachment among Italian Older Migrants in Newcastle upon Tyne". Co-supervised with Professor Katie Brittain.

Dr Jane Nolan (SELLLS funded) "Narrating Employability from English Studies: An Ethnographic Study".  Co-supervised with Professor Jennifer Richards. 


Esteem Indicators

2015-ongoing: Committee Member and Special Edition Assessor, Royal Anthropological Institute, Publications Committee.

2012-ongoing: Editorial Board member, Ageing & Society (Cambridge University Press).

I was invited to appear on BBC Radio Four's Thinking Allowed to discuss one of my publications, 'On Vegetable Love: Gardening, Plants and People in the North of England'.