Sarah Riley is a Professor in Critical Health Psychology at Massey University, New Zealand and the ISCHP Vice-Chair. Her work looks at how taken for granted ideas in our society open up possibilities for what people can say, think, feel and do, while shutting down others. She is particularly interested in the dynamics between neoliberalism and subjectivity, and questions of gender, embodiment, health and citizenship. She has co-authored several books including Critical Bodies (Palgrave, 2008), Technologies of Sexiness (Oxford University Press, USA, 2014) and Postfeminism and Health (Routledge, 2018), she is currently writing Postfeminism and Body Image (Routledge), and Digital Gender, Affect and Subjectivity (Routledge).
Can you tell us a bit about your role and experiences in ISCHP? I feel like I came late to the ISCHP whānau (family), my first conference was when ISCHP came to Bradford in the UK in 2013. Both ISCHP and the people of Bradford seemed incredibly welcoming, it was a feelgood moment. I was lucky to get a grant awarded from the British Psychology Society to go to the next ISCHP conference which was in Grahamstown South Africa, and by then, I felt I had found my people.
I joined the executive committee by sticking my hand up in the AGM at Grahamstown, and, after working closely with Gareth Treharne (current Chair of ISCHP) on another committee, Gareth suggested I stand for vice chair which I did at the Bratislava conference. I don’t have a job description, so I’ve been generally working behind-the-scenes to support people who do.
I am also part of the group developing ISCHP awards, so if you have ideas for what awards ISCHP might want to give (e.g. emerging researcher, mid-career researcher, amazing supervisor, etc.), or people you think we would like to nominate for such an award, please let me know.
How did you embark on an academic career? What prompted this path? I didn’t really start to enjoy my undergraduate studies until the final year, it was then that psychology started to get interesting for me. At that point I really wanted to do more and so I stayed on and did an MPhil, completing an experimental study which I am still quite proud of, since a similar study was published a few years later by some eminent Americans!
In the study, I showed that if I made women’s gender identity salient, (i.e. I got them to think about themselves as women) and then put them in a stereotypical vulnerable situation (I told them that women were bad at maths), then I could illicit stereotypical behaviour (I made them statistically worse at maths!). In hindsight, it’s an example of me trying to understand the person in context, and I think probably that’s why my first few years of undergraduate didn’t resonate because they had such an individualist focus.
While doing my MPhil I saw a fully funded PhD advertised at Glasgow Caledonian University, and I jumped at the chance to carry on. The PhD required a mixed methods approach, and because of this requirement I started to read qualitative methods, including discourse analysis. Like feminism, discourse analysis gave me words to explain the world in ways that really resonated for me, and I’ve been doing discourse analysis ever since.
What have been the highlights of your career so far? One highlight was getting that PhD funding, moving to Glasgow during one of its best summers and enjoying many days sunning myself in Kelvingrove Park while reading about poststructuralism.
Fast forward about 10 years, and I was a lecturer at the University of Bath, living in Bristol which I found a hugely exciting city, and being awarded an ESRC grant to look at rave culture as a form of political and social participation. I am really proud of that work for pushing the boundaries of what might be understood as political participation, banging the drum for understanding the value of what young people do on their own terms, and adding ‘going to drum and bass clubs’ to my job description. It also allowed me to work with, and learn from, Chris Griffin who was a brilliant critical psychologist in the area of youth cultures before she retired.
Moving to Aberystwyth, I worked with some absolutely brilliant people who inspired me, validated what I did, and shared innumerable interesting conversations on critical psychology. I am grateful to be still working on several projects with them.
Being offered the job of director for Massey University’s Masters in health psychology is a recent highlight. Massey celebrated 30 years of critical health psychology in 2020, the staff and the students associated with this program made a huge contribution to critical health psychology over that time. They were a beacon for many of us in the UK during times when our approach was devalued and resisted by the wider psychology community. So it is a huge honour to now be part of its history.
Finally, more an extensive rather than a one-off highlight, has been my working relationship with Adrianne Evans. We have worked together for over 10 years exploring gender issues at the intersections of psychology, digital media and cultural studies. I think the most simpatico moment was when we first used a combination of Google docs and Skype to collaborate in real time over the course of our day, weaving the writing and our working day together while being miles apart.
Can you tell us about any career challenges and how you have tackled these? My first job was a research assistant in an education department that employed a couple of inspiring feminist researchers, I remember one of them telling me to always pick my battles because you can’t fight on too many fronts. That advice stayed with me.
Equally, I have always fought my corner. Unfortunately, I think women in academia have to fight their corner. At a conference dinner I once sat with two eminent feminist researchers. Combined they had a grant capture of the GDP of a small country, but they still shared a range of experiences of discrimination and prejudice.
Academe is organised in a highly competitive way and, combined with cultural sexism, I believe it is harder for women to be successful without eliciting negative responses from others. I have managed negative behaviours – including bullying – by building a network of colleagues and postgraduate students who have the same supportive work ethos that I do, building alliances within my own organisation, doing work I love with people I respect, and going to HR when I’ve needed to. When I’ve felt that an organisational context truly wasn’t able to meet my needs, I left it.
What are you currently working on? A few of years ago, Adrienne Evans, Martine Robson, and I published a book as part of the Routledge critical approaches to health series (edited by Antonia Lyons & Kerry Chamberlain) called Postfeminism and health, from that we got an offer for a follow-up book called Postfeminism and body image, as part of the Routledge women’s studies series. We’ve finished the first draft of that book which I’m really excited about.
I am also building a team to explore the rapidly developing digitalized world structuring women’s embodied experiences – in particular apps related to menstruation and menopause. I think looking at these will offer a lens to explore a range of important issues happening at this moment in time in relation to gender, digital technology, subjectivity and embodiment.
Who/what inspires you and why? Rosalind Gill. She is brilliant. Her ideas have been incredibly generative across a range of disciplines, and she is wonderfully supportive to other academics. Her writing is so good that when I finished reading her book Gender and The Media I felt sad the way I do with a good novel knowing that there is no more to read.
Margaret Wetherell is, of course, another inspiration for a discourse analyst, she revolutionised the way we think about language and power in psychology not only with her influential research, but also the ESRC research program she lead in the UK which provided the funding for a generation of identity researchers.
What would you like to accomplish as an academic? Very occasionally, I meet people who are get excited when they realise they’ve been talking to ‘Sarah Riley’ because something I’d written had helped them understand their world differently. To know that your work has chimed with somebody else and you’ve made a difference to them is a wonderful feeling. I would like to accomplish more of that.