This is the first in our new series of Career Files: informal interviews with leading or under recognised critical health psychologists and early career researchers. This month’s Career File is with our very own society chair, Dr Gareth Treharne.
Tell me who you are and what you do?
I work as a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Otago in Dunedin. Otago is a region of in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the University is the oldest in the country, having been founded in 1869. I moved here exactly 10 years ago fresh out of a BSc, PhD and research fellowship in psychology at the University of Birmingham, UK. My family hails from Wales and I grew up in England very aware that my generation had lost the language that my parents spoke as their first language. The issue of language loss has become even more meaningful to me since living in Aotearoa/New Zealand where Te Reo Māori became recognised as an official language in 1987. I’m now a citizen of Aotearoa/New Zealand as well as maintaining my British citizenship (and accent). Paying attention to official languages is just one of the things needed if we are to work in ways that decolonise rather than recolonise in health psychology and every aspect of academia.
During the past decade my research interests have expanded from a very specific focus on the health psychology of arthritis to now cover wider aspects of chronic illness and well-being among marginalised groups. Over the same period my comfort being an out gay cisgender academic has also increased. There are still occasional uncomfortable moments but I’ve come to realise the importance of role models for students with marginalised sexualities or genders, so any moments of discomfort are worth it. I consider myself a critical health psychologist and queer scholar-activist. To ‘queer’ means to question what gets taken for granted so that’s in keeping with the idea that to be a critical academic means to question who benefits from research and from the status quo of things that are taken for granted. I really value the flexibility of working in academia and our ability to speak up in our role as ‘critic and conscience of society’. I spend most of my days with my head buried in research in some way, whether it be planning or giving a lecture, working with one of the postgraduate students I supervise, or doing something on one of my research projects.
Name some researchers/authors who have inspired you?
I’ve recently got hold of a copy of the abstract booklet of the first conference of what became the International Society of Critical Health Psychology (ISCHP). The conference was called “Reconstructing Health Psychology: An International Conference on Critical and Qualitative Approaches to Health Psychology” and was held in July 1999 in St John’s University, Newfoundland, Canada. We’ll be digitising the booklet for posterity and posting it on the website with the aim of having a full history of ISCHP conferences. So many health psychology academics who inspire me were at that conference, including Antonia Lyons (who was one of my PhD supervisors), Wendy Stainton Rogers (who was ISCHP’s Chair for 6 years at the same time as I was Secretary for 2009-2015), Carla Willig, Sue Wilkinson, Kerry Chamberlain, Michael Murray, and David Marks (who also did a stint at the University of Otago and is the editor of the Journal of Health Psychology, which is one of the most frequent homes of critical health psychology research). It’s amazing to see how many of the talks from that first conference were transformed into what are now classic articles in critical health psychology. I’m also inspired by Judith Butler, who commented that she never re-reads any of her previous writing in an interview she did with Sara Ahmed that was published in the journal Sexualities in 2016. I really like the idea of constantly moving forwards – something that’s really important within critical research to avoid the kind of stagnation that can come from settling on new norms. At the same time I see a lot of value in returning to the original texts of inspirational scholars and reflecting on our own research. Carolyn Ellis’s 2009 book “Revision: Autoethnographic Reflections on Life and Work” provides a fascinating tour of some of her autoethnographic research by revisiting projects, places, and people. Ellis’s work also goes to show the relevance of putting the researcher at the centre of academic writing rather than writing from the perspective of a god-like outsider. I’m currently reading David Lodge’s 1995 novel “Therapy” about a sitcom writer antihero whose life unravels after he starts psychotherapy and becomes obsessed with a somewhat obscure continental philosopher. I’m also reading Janet Mock’s second autobiography, “Surpassing Certainty”, about her pathway to becoming a trans journalist-activist (like a scholar-activist but with far more reach).
What are you currently working on?
I had some great advice from Liz Peel a few years back – an academic should always have a ‘passion project’ to work on. My current passion project relates to trans healthcare. I’m working with some amazing trans people in Dunedin and academic collaborators to develop community input in teaching trainee health professionals what they will need to know about providing care for trans people. What we’ve come to realise is that this generation of trainee health professionals is hungry to learn more about how to apply inclusivity in their practice and they will be an important cohort of trans allies in taking that professional knowledge into the healthcare system. I’m also working on understanding the discrimination faced by people with marginalised sexualities or genders in many contexts including university life. This work is happening through a few research project as well as hands-on involvement with a local charitable trust in Dunedin and processes of recognising inclusive workplaces. I’m also involved in campus-based projects tackling sexual violence, something else that I’m passionate about addressing and which really benefits from detailed research drawing on critical health psychology perspectives. My research on arthritis is also going strong and I’m involved in some exciting projects about understanding experiences of fatigue, engagement in exercise, and shared decision-making about stopping medical treatments once arthritis is under control.
How did you get involved in ISCHP and how has the experiences been for you?
I’m a second generation ISCHP member as I wasn’t at the first conference, which was held during the summer vacation in the year between completing my bachelor’s degree and starting my PhD. Then the second conference was held 2 years later in Birmingham in 2001 and ISCHP was formally instigated. Several things stand out in my memory of attending that conference. I was about halfway through my PhD and worked as a volunteer on the registration desk and in exchange was able to sit in on some of the sessions. I remember meeting Wendy Stainton Rogers who was mother hen to all the student volunteers. I remember hearing Kerry Chamberlain give a talk about the place of food in critical health psychology and I was fascinated at how research might explore the social and psychological meanings of things like meals and ingredients and restaurants rather than pathologising diets and calories and weight. And I remember sitting in on several other talks that started me on the track of understanding the ethos of critical health psychology and what it can achieve. Then in 2003 I attended the third ISCHP conference in Auckland just before submitting my PhD. It was a long way to come for a conference and supervision meeting with Antonia (who had just moved back) but it was totally worth it and started me on a path of looking for a job in Aotearoa/New Zealand. I became more involved in the running of ISCHP in 2009 when I became Secretary and worked alongside two Chairs, Wendy Stainton Rogers and Chris Stephens, before becoming Chair this year. The moral of the story is that it’s amazing how fast you can go from being a student volunteer to ISCHP Chair (if you consider 16 years to be fast), and I’m excited to see who will be Chair in 16 years from now in 2033! One of ISCHP’s core principles is supporting students and early career researchers and people always comment at how welcoming the conference is.
What makes you critical of mainstream psychology worldwide?
One of my main criticism of mainstream health psychology is the double standard of contextualisation. How many times have those who do qualitative research had an article rejected because the findings are unfairly critiqued for only being of local relevance? But how many times have you read a mainstream health psychology article and been given so little contextual information that you can’t get a good sense of the data, or even had to make a presumption about which country or countries the data come from based on the affiliations of the authors? The localised nature of mainstream health psychology research gets overlooked whilst often making conclusions that imply the findings have universal generalisability. This criticism of mainstream health psychology is symptomatic of a wider epistemological dogmatism – the dubious argument that only mainstream health psychology counts as ‘real’ health psychology research, which has led to an over-reliance on experimental methods in the form of the randomised control trial. The beauty of critical approaches to research is the ongoing interrogation of epistemology and methodology that helps ensure we keep asking which groups benefit from research and keeps us thinking about methodological pluralism and creativity rather than dismissing or valorising any particular method that might be more associated with mainstream or critical health psychology.
Would you recommend any books or papers for those interested in critical psychology, and critical approaches to health?
Antonia Lyons and Kerry Chamberlain’s introductory textbook from 2006 is still the only comprehensive textbook that take a critical approach to health psychology. A second edition of Carla Willig and Wendy Stainton Rogers’s Handbook of Qualitative Research in Psychology has recently been published and is treasure-trove of guidance about methodologies and subfields within psychology. And I’m really excited about a forthcoming handbook I’ve co-edited with three awesome colleagues from South Africa (Catriona Macleod, Phindi Mnyaka and Jacqui Marx). It’s called the Handbook of Ethics in Critical Research and each chapter is centred on a story from the field of research so it gives readers a really rich sense of how ethics unfold and how current regulatory systems shape critical health research in particular. It was a fascinating journey to work on this handbook and it will be a great resource for critical researchers.