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INTRODUCING… Elizabeth Olson

The Details elizabeth olson-large

Hometown: I was born in Washington D.C., but grew up in a suburb of Denver, Colorado.

Degrees: BA in international relations and political science, MA in Political Science/Public Policy, and PhD in Geography all from CU-Boulder

Academic Interests

My research stiches together themes related to religion, development and inequality, and normative reasoning. My empirical studies have focused on Peru and the United Kingdom. Most recently, I’ve been examining young people’s religious perspectives and practices in the UK, with a focus on youth growing up in deprived neighborhoods. For that project, we worked with groups of young people in two British cities, teaching them basics of filmmaking and production. The project thus illustrates the kinds of methodologies that I like to explore within my work – participatory, largely ethnographic, and increasingly integrated with new media both in the production of data and for the purpose of engaging interested audiences.


Right now I’m working on conceptions of suffering. I find this interesting, because I never thought my work would lead me here! But I think it is descriptive of how my academic interests have developed over time. When I first began writing about religion and development in the context of Provincias Altas of Cusco, Peru, I realized that I actually knew very little about religion. I’ve been remedying this over the years. Right now I’m most concerned about how the last several years of economic crisis have produced some toxic conditions for young people globally. My interest in film has also made me think more about how people – ‘religious’ or not – narrate the role of religion in their lives, and I’m working with collaborators here at UNC and at National University Singapore to begin developing that project.

Life at UNC

I’ve arrived at UNC after holding faculty positions at Lancaster University (England) and, most recently, the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. UNC provides an exciting opportunity to contribute directly to the development of institutions, curriculum, and networks that are responsive to the new situation of higher education within a globally-aware world. I really enjoyed working directly with the establishment of Edinburgh’s Global Development Academy, and hope that some of my experience there can support the work we are doing here at UNC. Most important to me, however, is the sense that UNC is still a state university that is dedicated to widened access and diversity. This should be cultivated, for it sets us apart from other higher education institutions and provides a model for global engagement that are dedicated to global knowledge for the purpose of inclusivity and inspiration. Anything in my work that advances this purpose makes me proud and makes me love my job.

My most difficult moment in my career is far less elevated or aspirational: having my second child only a few months after starting up a large research project for which I was PI.

Tell us more!

I love dogs, singing, and good coffee. I hate cars and bad coffee. And I won a horse from a poetry contest when I was 12 with an epic ode to my favorite historical Morgan horse, Blackhawk. I strongly advise that parents not allow their children to enter these kinds of competitions.