“I get a lump in my throat”: A conversation continued

By Kathryn McGuigan, Kristi Urry, Andrea LaMarre, & Gareth Treharne, September 2020

Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash

In our first ISCHP blog post, we reflected on our contributions to the Illness Snapshots Symposium at the ISCHP conference 2019 and what this provoked for us in relation to how and why we do our research. At the end of the blog we raised several questions as to how, when, why, and to what extent researchers can or should reflect on their own and others’ work as people doing (critical) research. In this follow-up post, we continue this conversation with co-presenters from the Snapshots symposium: Andrea LaMarre and Gareth Treharne. Having reflected on their own experiences in response to the questions we raised in our first post, we include their (abridged) reflections in this piece, braiding these with our own ongoing reflexive considerations.  Once again, we invite readers to join this conversation by engaging with colleagues and students, with us, and with the wider ISCHP community.

How do our personal experiences inform our research? And, equally, how does our research shape the way that we experience and respond to events in our personal lives?

Gareth: My Snapshot presentation was a poetic abstraction about why teaching staff of health professional training programmes don’t feel expert enough to teach about transgender healthcare. It was based on a study I conducted. I purposefully chose something that wasn’t about my personal experience […] though my research is a big part of myself! However, as a cisgender person, I am an outsider. I don’t directly experience the gaps in healthcare provision that transgender people do. […] I think that outsiders have a big role to play in challenging marginalisation of any aspect of identity, rather than leaving this task to those who are marginalised.

Kathryn: My PhD was in a niche area of community pharmacy; a place where I am an outsider as a non-pharmacist, but also an insider as a user of pharmacies and medications. I wonder, do I want to do more research in this area, or do I want to dive into my lived experiences of supporting my daughter through her eating disorder journey, or something else? Some days, I want to dive in, to raise awareness, and shout ‘It is hard!’. But, I am not my daughter. What right do I have to say it is hard? But it is.

How much of yourself should you put into research, what is safe? How can I expect my participants to expose themselves when I am not prepared to do so?

Andrea: I remember the first time I disclosed my history of an eating disorder to a person in power over me in academia. […] I nervously, in trembling tones, mentioned my personal investment in the topic to the person (Carla Rice) who would become my advisor, and one of the most important influences on my academic work. Carla welcomed my self-disclosure with open arms and a readiness to explore this murky terrain with me. In the years to follow, she encouraged me to make art to reflect on this situatedness in my work.

Gareth: […] I’ve also worked on ways of challenging the exposure differential between researchers and participants and in my research with LGBTQ people. I will come out as cisgender and gay at the start of interactions with participants and encourage my colleagues/students to do the same, but in a safe way. I really like seeing this information included in publications as it feels like an act of resistance to the mainstream approach of saying nothing about the identity of the researcher.

How do we decide whether to reflect deeply on this, and whether to share those reflections with our colleagues?

Andrea: From the beginning of my academic journey, it felt important to explore that which exceeds what can be put into words in my investigation of recovery. After I conducted interviews with participants, I sometimes found my body aching with the need to move, to dance out the pain I heard in the voices of those who opened up to me. […] I can tell embodied [reflexive] stories because there is space for these stories in the feminist and critical research communities that I call home.

Gareth: As critical health psychology researchers, I don’t think we can avoid reflecting on how much of ourselves we put into our research. Having spaces like ISCHP (and others like the British Psychology Society’s Psychology of Women and Equalities Section and Qualitative Methods in Psychology Section) is really important for enabling researchers to explore ways of engaging in reflexivity and making connections.

Do we really want to work in areas that are, in many ways, deeply personal? What are the consequences for ourselves, our families, and our research?

Andrea: The story I shared at the ISCHP 2019 conference felt like a culmination of the years of laying myself bare at the feet of the academy. This would not have been possible without support from advisors like Carla, who always invited my whole self into her office and journal articles. It can be hard to know where to draw the lines between the personal, the professional, and the embodied […] It’s obviously a deeply personal decision how much to share or not. I would never suggest that I have the only “right” way of going about it or that there are not potential consequences of putting oneself “out there”. I think that, for me at least, vulnerability can be a political act.

Kristi: I wonder if some of the vulnerability I talked about in the previous blog post also grows out of a deep desire to ‘get it [academics] right’. My undergraduate education was dominated by positivist approaches to knowledge, teaching me that good research is divorced from the researcher who is, in turn, divorced from themselves as a social being. I’ve since found spaces to learn and expand away from this rigid idea, but I still feel a pull to the imagined neatness and comfort of performing those ‘firmer lines’.

Gareth: I think critical health psychology research really benefits from being personal and if a project isn’t personal to start with, it almost certainly will become so over time. […] This doesn’t mean that boundaries aren’t useful or, indeed, essential. To paraphrase a feminist saying: when you’re conducting research, the personal is not only political, it is also professional. The consequences are enriched research, but not without challenges around communication with those who have input in our research and our professional and personal lives.

How do we navigate these tensions, either alone or in conversation with the critical community? Where do we stop?

Gareth: Alone, we can work through tensions and challenges by writing. Collectively, we can develop a community of scholars who can advise on how to navigate challenges in individual research projects and as a sub-discipline of critical researchers.

Andrea: I can tell stories reasonably safely, because I am White, young, heterosexual. My body appears able and generally palatable to the social eye. The research communities I am part of facilitate my sharing […] None of this means that it is always easy to tell these stories, particularly through art. Sitting in the room at ISCHP preparing to share my story, my heart was beating out of my chest. I get a lump in my throat quite frequently when I transgress the norms of the contained, “put together” presentation that still seem so common in academic settings. That said, I feel equally uncomfortable containing and abstracting myself from the messy. […] So, I will keep asking questions and trying things on for size, exploring.

Kathryn: To address the tensions we have both personal and professional responsibilities we need to care for ourselves, be critical of the taken-for-granted assumptions (even within critical health psychology), and have courage to pursue the personal, what we love, and push back at the constraints of academia.  

How do we care for ourselves and others in academia and in these spaces?

Gareth: This question needs a whole post to itself about how academe could focus more on ways of caring and collaborating, rather than ‘meritocracy’ and competition. Maybe I’m dreaming of a Utopian past that never really existed and maybe the challenges of being critical in academe have just become more visible in recent times.

Kristi: My thoughts exactly. Are caring, collaborative academic spaces something that have existed before and can be returned to or, rather, something that we can continue building and moving towards?

We close with a collective invitation to reflect on how we can care for ourselves by, or when we are, sharing and interacting with personal stories that act to pull, push, or fold us in(to) many directions and ways of doing or sharing research.

About the authors

Kathryn McGuigan is a lecturer in the School of Psychology at Massey University, Albany, New Zealand. She teaches social and health psychology and research methods. Her interests include health and illness in place and space, community pharmacies, medications, food (particularly the struggle to eat), and gendered health issues. Kathryn draws on qualitative methodologies and is particularly interested in exploring arts based practices.

Kristi Urry is a lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Adelaide, Australia. She recently completed her PhD exploring mental health clinicians’ perceptions and accounts of sexuality and sexual health in mental health settings. In this work, Kristi used qualitative methods and drew on theory from critical (health) psychology, sociology, and related disciplines. She is particularly interested in how and why we – collectively and as individual researchers – produce particular knowledges, and to what end.

Andrea LaMarre is a lecturer in critical health psychology at Massey University, New Zealand. She obtained her PhD from the University of Guelph in 2018. In her work, she uses critical, feminist, qualitative, and arts-based approaches to explore eating distress and embodiment.

Gareth Treharne is an associate professor at the University of Otago, New Zealand. His research interests are in health psychology, illness perceptions, sexuality and gender, and the application of qualitative and quantitative research methods. Gareth takes a social justice approach to research, informed by critical theory, reflexivity and targeting inequalities. He has led research in identity, discrimination and well-being in relation to sexuality, gender and ethnicity.

The photos in this blog post are stills from Andrea’s symposium contribution: A short film about experiences of pain during graduate school and early career research.

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