Renisa Mawani


Research Classification

Research Interests

Colonial Legal History
critical theory
Oceans and Maritime Worlds
Philosophy, History and Comparative Studies
Race and Racism
Time and Temporality

Relevant Thesis-Based Degree Programs


Research Methodology

Historical Sociology
archival research


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Great Supervisor Week Mentions

Each year graduate students are encouraged to give kudos to their supervisors through social media and our website as part of #GreatSupervisorWeek. Below are students who mentioned this supervisor since the initiative was started in 2017.


Dr. Mawani has been a steadfast supporter and a source of great inspiration. It has been her encouragement that has kept me pressing on. Thank you Dr. Mawani!

2019 Leah Keegahn (2019)


Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision

Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.

Unmeasurable phenomenon : Native American students overrepresented in early school leaving but underrepresented in the data (2023)

American Indian students persistently have the highest dropout rates compared to all other racial and ethnic groups but we cannot describe educational pathways for this group due to problems with data. Lack of data for American Indian students is a primary obstacle facing researchers interested in tracking educational outcomes for these students. This dissertation explores connections between the U.S. government’s creation of colonial categories that produced American Indian identities and their lack of representation within educational data. Colonial efforts to remove the Indian from society has resulted in ongoing struggles over land, sovereignty and identity which has been informed by views of Indigenous inferiority and white superiority. This dissertation critically examines questions of Indigenous education and data sovereignty by considering U.S. governmental data and statistics that are publicly accessible to researchers interested in educational outcomes and in the underrepresentation of American Indian students within these data sets. It also examines Indigenous sovereignty over education through a case study of two Coast Salish tribes, the Lummi Nation and Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and their responses to a colonial educational system through the tribal curriculum, “Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State.” This initiative and other efforts to claim Indigenous sovereignty over education highlights what is missing from public education and what these tribes would like their students to learn.

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Interracial intimacy: how mixed couples negotiate and narrate their identity and experience (2022)

The rising number of interracial couples in Canada has often been interpreted as a success of multicultural inclusion. This dissertation questions this assumption by examining the experiences of interracial couples and how they identify themselves and their relationships. Through 87 in-depth interviews with 29 interracial couples in Vancouver, I investigated how couples narrate their stories of intimacy in relation to larger national narratives of Canada as a multicultural nation. My research led to four key findings. First, most of the couples in my study were affectively invested in dominant discourses of multiculturalism. While many viewed it as reflecting their values and aspirations, others were critical of how this national narrative muted certain aspects of their identity and experiences while deflecting attention from racism in Canadian society. For example, couples with Black partners faced greater hostility due to their interracial status and were more critical of racial inequalities in Canada. This can be understood in the context of anti-Black racism in Vancouver and Canada. People of colour said that their white partners had a legitimation effect on them and made them more acceptable in social spaces dominated by whiteness. Second, Québécois and Anglo-Canadian couples in my study expressed a desire to be considered ‘mixed’ in the Canadian context, given the historical relations of colonialism, power and domination between the two groups. Their reflections offer new possibilities for understanding whiteness in Canada. Third, for some of the couples I interviewed, interracial relationships offered opportunities for white partners to cultivate racial literacy by learning from their partners' experiences of racialization and empathetic identification. However, most male white partners in my study refused to recognize their own racial privilege and diminished their partners’ experiences of racialization. Cultivation of racial literacy required people of colour to perform the emotional labour of sharing their experiences of racialization with their partner. Finally, LGBTQ interracial couples experienced the double burden of defying the norms of monoraciality and heteronormativity and felt a need to ‘legitimize’ their relationships through symbolic means. Interracial relationships can be sites of power and contestation, but they cannot resolve the problem of racism in Canada.

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Towards an inclusive vision of law reform and legal pluralism in Ghana (2016)

In post-colonial Ghana, some rules of customary law have been criticised as being inimical to the rule of law and to socioeconomic development. As such, customary law has been a key focus of legal reform. There has been resistance to law reform efforts, especially from communities in rural areas because the state and customary legal systems have failed to reconcile their perceptions of law and legal responsibilities. Taking these legal conflicts as its starting point, this dissertation explores the mechanisms for effective reforms of customary law in a legally plural Ghana. One key objective is to consider the types of legal reforms that might be agreeable to rural dwellers in ways that ensure compliance with state law. Drawing on legal pluralism as a guiding framework for analyzing the relationship between state and customary legal systems, and focusing on intestate succession as one concrete example, I argue that in order for legal reforms to be embraced, especially by rural dwellers, the state must adopt an inclusive vision of law reform, by modifying the machinery of law reform to meet the particular needs of its people. In the context of intestate succession, I argue that the courts should be given discretion, based on suggested guidelines, to vary the extended family’s portion of intestate property. In addition, I argue that changes to intestate law must also be accompanied by political, economic, educational and even psychological changes to the structures that frame the customary legal system. In sum, legal reform must also mean social, political and economic reform. It must also mean establishing and nurturing meaningful reciprocal relationships among legal systems and empowering people to consider engaging with and accepting opposing views, with a view to managing conflicts.

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Race states of concern : juridicial publics and the localization of race in Vancouver and Chicago (2014)

In post-industrial cities, race mediates the administration of law, shaping how certain behaviors, places, and populations are regulated by state and public actors. Yet, race does not have a single juridical guise across these cities, having acquired multiple forms across urban spaces in different regional and national contexts. This dissertation examines how racial relations of power are recreated through localized discourses of crime that govern minority groups in two urban centres: African American populations in Chicago and South Asian populations in Vancouver. Through a comparative analysis of legal and media texts published on each of these populations, I illuminate the disparate racial logics, sentiments and practices that mutate through these cities’ divergent histories of urbanization, industrialization, and empire. The historical, social and political differences between Chicago and Vancouver pose methodological problems for comparisons intent on causal explanation. To consider the mutability of race across geography and population, I formulate an “awkward” mode of comparison that offers new insights into how race is materialized through the unique socio-historical conditions of urban centres. This awkward comparison reveals how racial knowledges of blackness travel across regional and national contexts, shaping how African American and South Asian populations are intelligible to legal and public actors. By examining how the homes of these populations are subject to racial practices of scrutiny and surveillance, this dissertation also highlights the gendered configurations of the family that warrant the racial exercise of law. Finally, this dissertation considers the public inquiries into police torture in Chicago and the Air India Bombing in Vancouver to illustrate how the inaction of state officials can manifest racial conditions of violence. Through each aspect of this comparison, this dissertation demonstrates how public concerns about crime can extend and intensify the racial force of law.

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(Re)Writing the rule of law: text and expertise in humanitarian intervention (2012)

This dissertation examines humanitarian intervention through the texts and experts of human rights field work in inter-governmental organization (IGO) missions in conflict and post-conflict situations. Humanitarian intervention, understood as coercive collective intervention by the ‘international community’ against a state to protect the population(s) within that state, is one of the most challenging and controversial issues in international law and policy today. Humanitarian intervention involves the exercise of geo-political and institutional power, and it requires the massive mobilization of personnel and resources from around the world in complex and on-going projects of peacekeeping and nation building. Although humanitarian intervention is largely justified in the name of human rights and the rule of law, there has been little empirical study of the institutions and individuals conducting the work of human rights and the rule of law in contexts of intervention. Human rights field officers are primary actors as translators, instructors, advocates and practitioners of the rule of law in the field of humanitarian intervention.This research uses an approach of Institutional Ethnography, informed by Actor-Network Theory, to understand the dynamics of human rights field work in IGO field missions. Its approach is to trace relations of power in humanitarian intervention through an empirical investigation into how law is constituted, deployed, adapted, and redefined in human rights field work. This project relies upon in-depth interviews with human rights field officers and analysis of three central categories of texts – international treaties, UN Security Council resolutions, and human rights field reports. This research examines law in the everyday context, but in humanitarian intervention that context is an exceptional one, and both law and expertise take on particular significance in the field. The texts of law cross temporal and spatial scales to establish normative frameworks, create institutions, deploy personnel, and assess outcomes. The experts deployed to the field are uniquely empowered as impartial outsiders, even as they are connected to and imbricated in larger networks of rule. Close consideration of the texts of international law and the everyday work of field officers offers important insights into this emerging exercise of institutional and global governance.

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At the hearth of the nation: the Woman's Missionary Society and Victoria's Chinese Rescue Home 1886-1923 (2012)

The Chinese Rescue Home was an important feature of Victoria's (British Columbia, Canada) moral and racial landscape. It was envisioned by Methodist missionaries and later the Women's Methodist Missionary Society (WMS) to be a sanctuary for Chinese and Japanese women who were thought to be prostitutes or slave girls or who were believed to be at risk of falling into these roles. Despite its significance to British Columbian and Canadian history, there has yet to be a sustained and systematic study of the Home. Using a range of archival sources including WMS reports, newspapers, and legal cases, this dissertation offers an in-depth and empirical case study of the Chinese Rescue Home. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach and drawing from theoretical and methodological developments in sociology, history, and geography, I use the concept of domesticity to examine the complex, contradictory, and contentious relationships between gender, race, and religion. While white women derived their own inclusion in the nation by policing the boundaries of race and reimagining the places of Chinese and Japanese women, they did so by including these women as part of the 'Christian family.' Therefore, this dissertation contributes to the Canadian literatures on Chinese and Japanese immigration by foregrounding the ways in which racial power operated through both inclusion and exclusion. Domesticity, here, was central to the shaping of not only the types of relationships that were permitted, but also the spaces in which they took place.

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Master's Student Supervision

Theses completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest theses.

The 1907 anti-Asian riots : the making of sensibility among working class men (2023)

This research explores how racialized sensibility emerged through the 1907 anti-Asian riots in Vancouver and links the riots in Vancouver to the riots in Bellingham earlier in the same year. It uses mixed methods to collect data on portraits, photographs, images, editorials, and documents, employing archival ethnography to read documents along and against the grain (Stoler, 2002; 2012) to make sense of the time period and the sensibilities that underpinned the riots. Archival ethnography helps bring to light the accounts, conversations, and dialogues of colonial agents and actors, and to interpret missing data in the archive. Missing data in the archive consists of historical documents that are overlooked, misinterpreted, or destroyed. My thesis also accounts for gaps, silences, and erasures in the archive by applying critical fabulation to rearrange and reconstruct intersecting viewpoints (see Hartman, 1997; 2008; 2019). To provide a thicker analysis of archival documents, this research interprets olfactory and auditory senses as integral to the making of these riots (see Simmel, 1908/2002; see Campt, 2017; see Lee, 2010; see Mawani, 2009; see Russell, 2019; see also Blaikie, 2002). It is only through the process of combining mixed-methods, theory, and practice that the missing data in the archive can be reimagined and written as part of the historical narrative.

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Race, dominion, and the British Columbia Penitentiary 1879-1916 (2020)

Decades of research have been dedicated to unraveling the role of race in incarceration, but there remains a limited understanding of Canada’s penal history and the social issues present in the nation’s modern prisons. The penitentiaries that are operative today were developed from systems and models created centuries ago. As structures from the colonial and nation-building eras of Canada, scholars have clarified how the penitentiaries are continued sites of violence and inequality nationwide. However, minimal focus exists on the provincial context of British Columbia. When the province officially entered the confederation of Canada in 1871, one major component was the promise by the new Dominion to build a penitentiary immediately in New Westminster. Although six other penitentiaries already existed across Canada, the British Columbia Penitentiary provides a unique colonial legacy that requires further examination. My thesis is an analysis of the penitentiary reports that were written by British Columbian officials during the nation-building period of 1879 to 1916. I explore the following questions: How did the penitentiary’s warden, chaplain, and surgeon reports work in conjunction to create ideas of race? What were the implications of these of ideas of race, how did they reach outside the penitentiary walls, and what do the discontinuities and contradictions in these reports reveal about the role of race in a new nation? I seek to explore these questions on how racial truths were generated, and to what effect these truths were used during the efforts to build the Dominion of Canada.

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Simulating the nature of cities: ecology, planning, and systems science in the Inter-Institutional Policy Simulator (IIPS) project, 1970-1974 (2020)

This thesis studies the intersection of ecology, urban planning and systems science in the Inter-Institutional Policy Simulator (IIPS) project between 1970 and 1974. I examine the project in the milieu of the popular environmental movements and its challenges to the established political and scientific authority in North America. While previous scholarship in the history of ecology has illustrated the Cold War’s influence on the “systems ecology” research programme and its focus on computer simulation and mathematical models, this thesis examines how ecologists extended their discipline from the management of natural ecosystems to planning for “urban systems.” By investigating the networking strategy of ecologists and urban planners, the first part of my thesis studies the rise and fall of IIPS as the interaction between “IIPS the Platform” and “IIPS the Product,” or between the network of experts and the simulator they aimed to create. Although IIPS failed to create a product capable of simulating the urban dynamics of Vancouver, it nevertheless exemplified the efforts of ecologists and urban modellers to address the social challenges in the early 1970s. The second part of my thesis concentrates on the public programs led by project members, in which the experts attempted to reformulate the relationship between technoscience and the public through a variety of educational and participatory events. I argue that the value of IIPS was its contribution to the reimagination of information technology and systems science in an era of environmental anxiety and social transformation, and suggest that the experience of the project can offer critical insights into contemporary questions concerning scientists’ roles in a challenging socio-political context.

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The spatial politics of veganism: "moral branding" in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (2019)

This paper explores the intersections between the recent rise of veganism into the mainstream and the continued gentrification of low-income and marginalized areas within the urban environment. More specifically, I examine the spatial dynamics of one particular vegan eatery in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, how it produces social distance between patrons and DTES residents, thereby reproducing hegemonic power relations, both symbolically and materially. Via ethnographic fieldwork, critical discourse analysis, and engagement with social theory, I highlight how the histories of classism, colonialism, racialization, and othering that the Downtown Eastside was built upon are symbolically reproduced and socially perpetuated via the built environment of the restaurant. Additionally, I examine the restaurant’s usage of “moral branding” and the ways in which this style of branding produces narratives that justify the existence of the space while simultaneously actively erasing its connections to the poverty immediately outside its doors. Ultimately, moralistic vegan branding promotes a decontextualized, ahistorical, capitalistic version of veganism that does not take into account human suffering under industrial meat and dairy production and assumes veganism – in whatever forms it may take – to always be a positive and favorable ethical choice.

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Conceptualizing the contemporary monster (2011)

Through the challenges of Donna Haraway and Giorgio Agamben to Michel Foucault's theory of biopolitics I develop a conceptual frame for thinking about the sociological role of monsters in modern society. I argue that Foucault's position on the concept of monsters submerges expressions of liminality and exclusion from western society which are based on the mistaken narrative of how static natural laws and dynamic socio-political laws define the individual. Underneath the contemporary iterations of inclusive abnormality and expressions of repressed human desires, monsters illuminate the contradictory "nature" of such laws, and provide the form in which to debate who – or what – is allowed within the definition of a human individual and, therefore, within the human population.

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Murder in the park: civic identity-making and space in Vancouver (2011)

Stanley Park is well known in Vancouver, Canada, and globally as a site of nature in the city. Over the course of its history, this image of the park as healthy, natural, and safe has been frequently disrupted by violent and/or destructive incidents. Physical and sexual attacks, both random and calculated, have routinely occurred in the park and have resulted in frenzied media, civic, and political responses. These events unsettle Stanley Park’s identity, and as a result, multiple actors in Vancouver perform cultural work to reinvent and/or restore the Park’s meaning vis-à-vis extreme disruptions of violence. By examining the textual records of two exemplary incidents of violent disruption in the park – the 2001 queer-bashing murder of Aaron Webster and the 1992 beating and killing of six Chilean flamingos in the Park zoo – I ask: How is Stanley Park’s identity created, managed, and communicated to Vancouver residents and to visitors and tourists? How are belonging, citizenship, power, and morality implicated in this cultural work? This thesis argues that both the murder of Aaron Webster and the flamingo killings have profound implications for how we understand Stanley Park. Webster’s death and the ensuing public response demarcated rightful queer ownership of the space and at the same time provided a platform for public scrutiny and administration of queer sexuality. The flamingo murders were leveraged to bring Stanley Park ‘back’ to its ‘natural’ state, upholding a national narrative about the park as an untouched wilderness and further erasing the histories and ongoing realities of colonialism. The discourses that emerged in response to each event went well beyond the cases at hand to produce important meanings about civic identity and who belongs and does not belong in Vancouver.

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