By Malvern Chiweshe
The first thing that comes to your mind when you hear about a critical health psychology conference, the 9th biennual ISCHP conference in Grahamstown, South Africa, held in July 2015, perhaps isn’t that it is going to be fun. When I first heard of the conference I pictured a group of experienced academics arguing and debating nonstop. To my surprise I had fun throughout the whole conference. In the words of Professor Leslie Swartz this was one of the best conferences ever held.
The Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction (CSSR) and the Rhodes University Psychology Department really did a splendid job in organizing the conference (and I don’t just say that because I belong to both entities!). Despite the chilly Grahamstown winter weather the four days of immense engagement with critical issues in health was worth it. My conference started with a preliminary workshop on narrative methods for critical health research facilitated by Corinne Square and Floretta Boonzaier. We engaged with the importance and power of narrative and did some very exciting and insightful writing exercises. The workshop set the tone for the whole conference as it was well presented and engaging. There were also four other workshops that took place which were: 1) Doing better qualitative research facilitated by Kerry Chamberlain, 2) Project Revision: Reflecting on the methodological and pedagogical possibilities of digital story telling ran by Carla Rice, Jen Rinaldi and Michaela Hynie, 3) Resisting the neoliberal construction of academia or how to survive your phd in Critical Health Psychology in the face of work, life and pressures to perform facilitated by Jenny Setchell, and 4) Balancing the personal, the political and the professional: A reflective workshop ran by Elizabeth Peel and Gareth Treharne.
Monday started off with a welcome from Dr Mabizela the Vice Chancellor of Rhodes University. The keynote which followed and was presented by Professor Garth Stephens really blew me away. Garth critical theorized of violence drawing upon the current example of xenophobic violence in South Africa. Garth warned against the compulsive use of “interventionist frames of acting and doing, often at the expense of thinking and theorising”. The advanced level of analysis and theorising in the presentation was definitely a sign of things to come.
After the keynote and a good chunk of eats and coffee I went around figuring where to go next. If there is to be a criticism of the conference it has to be that there was too much choice as many presentations happened concurrently. One had to engage in some critical thinking before deciding on where to go. The first paper presentation I attended was Abigail Locke, Brett Scholz and Abigail Fick’s “Be a dad, don’t be a mum’s assistant.” A critical perspective of fathering discourses. This paper criticized the popular discourses of fatherhood which restricted father’s engagement in childcare. Later in the day Jeffrey Yen’s paper, Health psychology, or psychology for health? Historical perspectives on South African psychologists’ engagement with ‘health’ stood out for me. He examined how psychology in South Africa has engaged with health issues and concluded that there is no single form of health psychology research. Instead, research in South Africa takes a variety of perspectives in working towards all forms of justice, health-related or not. He argued that this allows for productive collaboration. As a researcher in South Africa the analysis was very relevant and raised lots of questions in my mind about my own identity as a psychologist.
On the second day, two presentations stood out for me. One was my colleague Ryan du Toit’s fine attempt to extend the lens in conversation analysis in his presentation titled How can conversation analysis contribute to ‘doing’ critical work? Extending the methodological conversation. Using data on diabetes consultations, Ryan illustrated how conversation analysis and discursive analysis can be used together within the same analytical project. Professor Leslie Swartz’s provided the second keynote titled: Care health and bodies out of place. Leslie used personal examples on health and illness to argue that inequality is intimately tied to health. I really loved his humility and acknowledgement of the debt he and his family owed to the Black nurses that cared for him.
My own symposium (together with Professor Catriona Macleod and Jabulile Mavuso) on Abortion in Africa was on the Wednesday morning and despite a typical Grahamstown-style power cut, it went on and the feedback we got was helpful and interesting. The Pecha Kucchas, 20-slide, 5 minute presentations, by the CSSR team (including Professor Catriona Macleod, Dr Pedro Pinto, Dr Jacqui Marx and Tracey Feltham-King) provided a wonderful, refreshing, way of ending Day 2. These touched upon reproductive rights in South Africa, historicising puberty and drag’s racial and gender politics. The preciseness of the arguments and the use of visual media the Pecha Kuchas adopted must surely be something that every conference presentation should have. The final keynote was provided by Professor Michelle Fine. With great humility and without slides, Michelle used examples from her collaborative work on racism, homophobia and sexism in New York communities and beyond to stress the importance of rethinking our identities in light of widening inequality.
One of the most successful parts of the conference were the side activities which provided not only room for networking but also fruitful discussion and debate. Concurrently running with the presentations were documentaries that focused on critical issues including Liminal Space, Ubudoda Abukhulelwa (Male Circumcision), Backstreet Abortion and Skin Deep. On Tuesday night we watched Miners Shot Down, a film about the brutal murder and suppression of striking South African miners. We also got the documentaries preloaded on a USB drive/ pen as gifts for conference delegates (amazing, right?). The breakaway dinner on Monday night was also a hit. The gala dinner on the Wednesday which ran until midnight included a lot of ‘critical dancing’ and great fun. The conference was concluded by four community visits at Upstart, Keiskamma Trust, Ubunye Trust and Fort England Hospital and which many of the people I spoke to found amazing. And not forgetting the wonderful food that was ever present throughout. Worcester University won the bid to host the 2017 conference and I will definitely be there.