Virginia Braun is a Professor in the School of Psychology at The University of Auckland, Āotearoa/New Zealand. She is a feminist and critical (health) psychologist, and teaches and researches in these areas. Her research explores the intersecting areas of gender, bodies, sex/sexuality, health, and (now) food. She has worked on projects related to heterosex, sexual health, cervical cancer prevention policy, sexuality and higher education, women’s genital meanings and experiences, and “female genital cosmetic surgery” (FGCS), pornography, body hair, and contemporary formations of “healthy eating”. Alongside this, she is a qualitative methodology writer (with long-time collaborator Victoria Clarke, and others), writing about qualitative research, thematic analysis, story completion, and a range of other qualitative methods and approaches.
How did you embark on an academic career? What prompted this path? I never intended to be an academic. I started studying psychology intent on clinical psych – such a stereotype! But over the three years of my undergraduate degree, and exposed to critical and feminist psych by Nicola Gavey, my interests in clinical diminished as my love of research and critical scholarship grew. At the end of my second year, I pestered Nicola into supervising an ‘independent’ research project in my final year – these aren’t typical in NZ undergraduate degrees – and with that, my love of research was set fast. I definitely came to academia through my love of research – I know that’s not a universal path, but it’s mine. Research still excites me more than anything, but it’s probably the thing I do least of.
I do think Nicola deserves a hefty credit for my career – and thinking about academia as an option: she both implicitly and explicitly gently encouraged me away from clinical and into a research career. After my BA, I’d left for my ‘great OE’ (a firmly established middle class/Pākehā kiwi tradition of travel post-school or post-degree), but a Master’s scholarship offer drew me back, pushing me deeper into this career track. During that time, Nicola encouraged the idea of doing a PhD, and of doing that oversees. I was lucky enough to get a Commonwealth scholarship to do my PhD in Social Sciences at Loughborough University – and what a time that was. An amazing group of academics, an amazing group of student-peers, those feel like intense and heady times, driven by passion, excitement, and, yes, anxiety and insecurity.
That was a different world, and the idea that one might not get an academic job after a PhD – a reality in these more precarious times – wasn’t part of the discussion. Still, I, and many of my peers, lost faith in the academic career path, and schlepped off to the guidance counsellor to ask ‘what else could I do’: in my case, heath management seemed to be the only option; academia seemed rosy and appealing again! Back to the PhD!
The commonwealth scholarships contract you to return home – premised on a colonial ideal – but I never anticipated I would. The rich vibrancy of academia in the UK at the time felt impossible to leave. But it turned out, that the fantasy of ‘the motherland’ as ‘home’ was just as much a fantasy as that of the perfect mother. And my only visit home 2.5 years after leaving made me realise I wanted to return. By luck and good fortune, Auckland were advertising for lectureships, so I got in before the deadline – and after a very slow and torturous eight months of uncertainty, was interviewed and got the job! I’m one of those rare cases, now, in that I am still in the same place, nearly 20 years on.
What have been the highlights of your career so far? I find that quite a hard question to answer – I think I’d want to focus on experiences, and I’d say the opportunities afforded me to go and teach in vastly different places around the world – and if I’m lucky, have a holiday too! – have been precious… Through teaching in different contexts (and across disciplines), you see just how much our locales shape us as learners, as teachers and as researchers, and it’s always surprising and enriching.
The place I’d go back to in a flash would be Iran – I co-taught a week on qualitative research in Tehran some years back, and travelled a bit as well. Without wanting to sound like some (naïve) orientalist fantasist, the richness of culture, and particularly cultures of knowledge and learning, and people’s engagement with the politics of their lives (or at least their engagement with us, as outsiders) were evocative, thought-provoking and moving. Oh, and the food, all the delicious food!
In a completely different vein, I was involved in a project, led by Nicola Gavey, which sought to develop critical engagement and conversations around pornography in Aotearoa – this was before we were having these conversations! One of the many facets of the project connected to visual arts: we curated an art exhibition – including works from some very high profile NZ artists – and public programme that pushed the conversation through visual and creative engagement alongside critical psychology scholarship.
Can you tell us about any career challenges and how you have you tackled these? It’s a cliché to say “imposter syndrome” but it’s a reality, and I think useful (if depressing) for doctoral students and early-career academics to hear that even those of us who might seem successful on the outside still face challenges like this. I feel this in lots of different ways, and compensate in relation to teaching, for instance, by ridiculous over-preparation. This is not a strategy I’d recommend.
The major career challenge I’ve had was getting sick with Lyme disease over 6 years ago. It took a while to get a diagnosis, because we just don’t have it in NZ, and thus to get treatment, and then that simply didn’t work. In its persistent state Lyme isn’t well understood, and so you find yourself in a complex space of embodying and navigating uncertainty on a daily basis. The effects of Lyme are variable, but mine have been primarily neuro-cognitive, with brain fog, concentration, memory and thinking issues (and fatigue) – not being able to think is pretty much my worst nightmare as an academic who loves the research side of it the most, and who wants to be a critical, interrogative, thinking scholar. It’s been pretty hard at times, but I’ve had amazingly supportive Heads/Deans, and also colleagues (and partner). I’ve tackled it through sessions of (extended) sick leave, but also by doing things I could do, within the impairments. So that’s meant focusing a lot on methodological writing with Victoria Clarke and others, and much less empirical work, because it requires a very different kind of thinking – luckily it’s also something I enjoy! I also took up a significant service role – as Associate Dean Equity for my Faculty – over this time, because it allowed me to contribute in ways that felt meaningful and important, and I was capable of, when I wasn’t capable of the intellectual work.
Of course, as a critical health psychologist (one of the labels I choose), there’s nothing like being on the inside to give you lots of food for future scholarship or critical engagement too…
Can you tell us a bit about your role and experiences in ISCHP? I remember what was effectively the first ISCHP conference: I was a doctoral student at the time, and didn’t go, but my supervisors went. And I remember being both envious and excited about the development of the ‘field’ of critical health psych. It’s always felt like a natural home for me, alongside critical/feminist psychology, but over the years, I haven’t been able to attend as many of the conferences as I would like – the timing often doesn’t work for me, as they often are too close to the start of a teaching semester.
I went to the Auckland conference (conveniently located for me, as by then I was back in Auckland and in a lectureship in Psychology at The University of Auckland). And it was both great and weird to go to Loughborough, having not been back since graduating with my PhD. The conferences I have attended have always been stimulating, engaging, and left me with both new questions and different answers. They offer a wonderful combination of community, being supportive and participatory, and criticality, through challenging or thought-provoking questions. They are a definite conference highlight.
What are you currently working on? Victoria Clarke and I are finishing up a book on Thematic Analysis for SAGE; I am also doing a few projects using story completion to explore that as a method. The main thing I have been exploring in the last while relates to contemporary ‘wellness diets’ – I’m trying to get into a range of different datasets to explore the area. There is so much going on there, and connects to health, identity, policy, practice, morality and privilege/marginalisation in all sorts of fascinating ways. But I will have more to say on that, when I have spent some of an upcoming year-long sabbatical (the privilege of that!) getting into the data.
Who/what inspires you and why? There are so many people who have and do inspire me as a scholar and as a teacher, but I’m writing this with brain-fog, so I’m not going to name names, for fear of missing people out! Overall, as an academic, I find myself more and more inspired by people who mix criticality with kindness. The world of academia these days is a harsh place, awash with injury and harm, which make it harder and harder for people to thrive, let alone survive. And those harms aren’t felt equally. And yet within this increasingly brutalising system, there are people who take kindness seriously, who take being a good colleague seriously, and that is admirable. I have a colleague at Auckland who has been pushing a #KindnessInScience campaign – when people are worn down, those things can go. We’re facing a challenging future in the decades ahead, and we’re going to need to find ways to build connection, not erode it. I am also inspired by those who speak up and out against the managerialist neoliberal university. Especially those who do so from less secure positions, and against their obvious individual interest. I recognise of course that it’s increasingly hard, if not impossible, to have the time or capacity to engage as academic citizens, so I don’t judge those who don’t!
What is the piece of work you would like to accomplish and be remembered for by the academic community? I think that this horse has already bolted, in that I (along with Victoria Clarke) will be remembered for thematic analysis. I can’t imagine doing something that will have anywhere near as wide an uptake in the scholarly community. It’s really humbling and amazing that how we write about qualitative research resonates and engages people, and, we hope, encourages more people into qualitative (and critical qualitative) research, and to do it thoughtfully, creatively, and well. On that note, I really hope that people who read and use TA do so looking further and deeper than our original 2006 paper. We’ve continued to develop our thinking, and many ideas are expanded/developed, clarified, newly articulated, or even changed in later works. And the book will go into lots of depth.
But being remembered is not what inspires me. One of my favourite things in New Zealand is that as academics, we are mandated to be critic and conscience of society by our Education Act. Needless to say, it’s not the key criteria in our annual performance review process, but it’s important to me, and many colleagues. But I try and take that seriously, and the opportunities and obligations it affords. I want to do work that is critical and meaningful, that challenges and questions prevailing knowledge and societal systems that perpetuate inequalities and troubling practices. And that maybe hopefully changes some things for the better. I find my “natural” tendency is to critique, to pick apart, and the challenge is to do work where that is just the starting point, and I see myself looking for more ways to do that in the future. But I’m not sure what they’ll be, or what that will involve.