Career file: Catriona Macleod

Catriona Macleod
is an ISCHP international representative from South Africa. She works at Rhodes University where she holds the positions of Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Chair of the Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction (CSSR) research programme. She is a leader in feminist health psychology and has made significant been in two main areas: sexual and reproductive health and feminist theory in Psychology.

How did you embark on an academic career? What prompted this path? I started my working career as a Mathematics teacher because I had a bursary from the South African Department of Education. I taught, for the most part, in historically black schools, which I really enjoyed. But this was always a way-station to continuing my studies. I lived frugally so that I could save enough money to return to University to study further. Initially I thought that I wanted to be a practising psychologist, but half way through my internship, I realized that this was not for me. I had heard of the Wits Rural Facility, which was a multi-disciplinary community development/research unit based in a rural area of South Africa. I enquired about possibilities and happily was employed there as a research officer after completing my Master’s degree. I loved the combination of research and community practice, and have not looked back since. In all my places of employment, I have tried to retain this balance.  

we, as critical health psychologists, must always retain hope for social justice winning the day.

What have been the highlights of your career so far? There have been many, but I mention three here. In 2014, I was awarded a South Africa Research Chair Initiative Chair (called Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction (CSSR)). This meant that I could devote all my time to research. The award was significant not only for me, but, I think, for the field of feminist psychology in South Africa, because the proposal that I put in was open about taking a social justice feminist approach to studying sexualities and reproduction. While there is much research conducted in these areas in South Africa, most of it takes a traditional public health approach. So, to have significant funding made available for explicitly critical work was noteworthy. The Chair was initially funded for five years. Recently it has been renewed and up-graded to a Tier 1 Chair.

In 2013, I was appointed as editor-in-chief of the international journal Feminism & Psychology. I work with Rose Capdevila and Jeanne Marecek as editors, which has been an absolute pleasure. Having the chance to contribute to feminist scholarship through action editing articles has been a privilege. We take a constructive and developmental approach to our decision letters, which take a long time to write. Our policy is that all authors whose articles go out for review must gain from the experience, even if the paper is rejected. While time-consuming, it is a fulfilling and great learning experience.

As an aside, when Feminism & Psychology was established, the editors stated very explicitly that they would not accept work from South African authors or sell the journal to South African institutions. This was obviously during Apartheid. The fact that there is now a South African editing the journal is indicative of why we, as critical health psychologists, must always retain hope for social justice winning the day.

Finally, our work at the CSSR is now being taken up in policy and practice in South Africa, which is really satisfying.

Catriona was awarded the 10th Social Change Award by the Rhodes University Vice Chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela in 2017. The award recognises prominent psychologists for their contribution to social change in South Africa.

Can you tell us about any career challenges and how you have you tackled these? South African higher education has experienced a crisis in the last few years, with students taking on the establishment regarding its failure to accommodate students from less resourced backgrounds, to decolonize the curriculum and institutional structures, and to address gender-based violence on campus. There have been many disruptions and protests (sometimes violent), which have pitted students against management, students against students, staff against students, staff against management, staff against student etc. (i.e. the factions do not cohere along clear lines).

At my institution, the anti-rape culture protests brought the institution to a halt for a number of days in 2016. I was asked, given the work that I do, to facilitate a task team on sexual violence on campus. The setting up and running of the Sexual Violence Task Team, in a transparent and participatory manner, was a complex process, about which I and others reflect in this article. The Sexual Violence Task Team report can be seen here.

Can you tell us a bit about your role and experiences in ISCHP? I first attended an ISCHP conference in Lausanne in 2007. We had hosted Wendy Stainton Rogers at the University of Fort Hare (where I worked at the time) in 2005 when she was over in South Africa for the Critical Psychology conference. She introduced me to ISCHP and encouraged me to attend the next conference. The only thing – I forgot to register before arriving in Lausanne and so discovered that my name and paper were not on the programme, despite having had the paper accepted. Entirely my fault. I sent frantic messages through to Wendy who negotiated with Kerry and others, I think, to include me. I am still embarrassed about this, but everybody was very kind and understanding, and I wonder if anybody except me remembers this.

Rhodes University where the ISCHP conference was hosted in 2015

I have attended most conferences since then, and organized the conference in Grahamstown (now called Makhanda) in 2015. The organization of the conference was a challenge (as it always is), but fulfilling. We received many positive comments about the conference, which was great. And, of course, everybody who attended will remember that conference for the big debate about the Israel-Palestine conflict!

What are you currently working on?  We have a lot of projects on the go at the CSSR–too many to list here–but they all fall within the aims of the unit, which are to analyse:

  1. discourses and narratives (the technologies of representation) concerning sexualities (e.g. sexual orientation, ‘adolescent’ sexuality) and reproduction/pregnancy deployed in public and private spaces;
  2. the interstice between carers (such as health service providers and teachers) and the recipients of sexual and reproductive health or education services (the technologies of intervention);
  3. the range of taken-for-granted assumptions or absent traces (e.g. regarding the nature of adolescence, mothering, family formation and function, race and class) that underpin interventions with respect to, and representations of, sexuality and reproduction;
  4. how the governmental technologies of representation and of intervention achieve or undermine gendering, racialising and class-based effects, and lead to the continuation or discontinuation of sexual and reproductive health inequities;
  5. the manner in which particular discourses, narratives, and practices regarding sexualities and reproduction are maintained or resisted in the everyday lives of men, women and their families;
  6. the manner in which the technologies of representation and the technologies of intervention promote or hinder sexual and reproductive health, sexual and reproductive citizenship and sexual and reproductive justice; and
  7. how equal sexual and reproductive citizenship may be promoted through policy and practice.

Who/what inspires you and why? The CSSR students. The students are, to a person, passionate and dedicated. They are committed to contributing to social justice through their research. Our research inevitably involves investigating complex and difficult situations. So, for example, students have interviewed women who have undergone unsafe abortion, faced intimate partner violence, been raped, have drunk alcohol to try to induce an abortion, been discriminated against because of their sexual orientation – the list goes on. As the CSSR we have cried together when faced with these injustices, and some students have had to seek counselling. And yet, they carry on; they are determined to work with the hard emotions that this kind of research evokes and to write about it.

Catriona with some of her graduating students from the CSSR.

We cannot hope that our work will lead to major shifts, but we do hope to add in some way to the joint project that critical health psychologists must carry out. It is an everyday privilege and pleasure to walk with people through the development of ideas, the construction of arguments and thinking through the implications of the work.

What is the piece of work you would like to accomplish and be remembered for by the academic community? Well, all of it really. But seriously, I hope that the CSSR (not me alone – everybody involved, students, postdoc fellows, researchers, research associates) will be remembered for shifting public health and educational thinking and interventions regarding sexualities and reproduction in the direction of sexual and reproductive justice and citizenship.

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