Pratchett Scholarship recipient to explore online “small gods”

Freyja Stokes COMMUNITY

A UniSA graduate will use a $100,000 scholarship started in memory of Sir Terry Pratchett to examine people’s behaviour in online environments, using concepts from some of the author’s critically acclaimed novels.

Freyja Stokes, a long-time fan of Sir Terry Pratchett’s books, has been awarded the Sir Terry Pratchett Perpetual Scholarship.

“What brought me to UniSA is predominantly my love for Sir Terry’s work,” Stokes says.

“I recall this program (the scholarship) being announced and I was interested but not sure about throwing my hat in the ring. It’s really exciting that a university would have an opportunity like this – something that openly celebrates how important literature and the arts are to our lives as a whole.”

The Sir Terry Pratchett Perpetual Scholarship began in 2015 and is awarded by UniSA every two years to support a student to undertake a masters by research at the Hawke Research Institute, covering stipend, travel and accommodation expenses as well as research costs.

Stokes is the second recipient and will use Pratchett’s concept of small gods – brought to prominence in his 1992 book of the same name – as a “tool or lens” to unpack and examine certain kinds of online group identities and behaviour.

Stokes says Pratchett was a massive part of her childhood and conducting research informed by his work was a great thrill.

“I used to raid my dad’s bookshelves and many of Pratchett’s books would migrate to my room,” Stokes says.

“I grew up surrounded by his Discworld stories and it’s amazing that other people think my idea, flowing from Sir Terry’s small gods, is interesting enough to offer me this research scholarship opportunity.

“Small gods basically feed on human belief and shape themselves around the wants, assumptions and personalities of the people who believe in them.

“They create a sort of reflection of their followers, but are also separate entities of their own, and are focused on maintaining their own power and visibility.”

She says at their most powerful, the small gods in Pratchett’s works can warp or shape a person’s language, perception of events or others, and, if their power base is challenged, elicit extremely strong reactions.

“These dynamics are really apparent in today’s online environment,” Stokes says.

“All of this is very human behaviour and these kinds of group identities are increasingly powerful. They make news headlines, inspire people to act or react in the real world and often feed into serious social conflict.

“I am hoping that using this perspective to try to improve our understanding of these kinds of small gods, we might be able to offer more constructive methods to engage with these groups and better understand the effects they can have on people.”

Stokes completed a Bachelor of Arts (English and Psychology) followed by a Graduate Diploma in Education, allowing her to teach in non-English speaking classrooms in both Japan and Vietnam.

The Sir Terry Pratchett Perpetual Scholarship fund, from which a scholarship is awarded every two years, was bequeathed to the University of South Australia in accordance with the author’s wishes.