Taking on the mainstream – Our symposium at the EHPS conference

By Wendy Stainton Rogers

Arial view overlooking Bratislavský hrad (Bratislava Castle). Photo by Martin Katler on Unsplash

Bratislava in Slovakia is a beautiful city, and this was my initial motive for getting to the EHPS 2022 conference. I know it well, having first visited in 1990, not that long after the massive ‘Velvet Revolution’ student protest filled the streets there, following the dismantling of the Berlin Wall a few days earlier. In a matter of weeks the former Soviet states of Eastern Europe overthrew communism – a move made possible by the Russian President, Mikhail Gorbachev, and his policies of perestroika and glasnost (Do look them up if you don’t know them, they paint a very different Russia from Putin’s Soviet Era today).

Getting involved began for me at a small group of the European Association of Experimental Social Psychology (EAESP – but they have now lost the second E) in Israel. From the 1960s the EAESP had held regular East/West meetings to promote collaboration, although at that time Soviet State control severely limited what was possible.

Both East and West delegates arrived in Negev Desert, somewhat giddy from the tearing down of the Iron Curtain. So we dumped the official programme and revelled in the relatively open way we could, at last, talk about what this all meant for us and for psychology. At last we from the West could talk openly with our Eastern bloc friends about what they wanted to change in their psychology curricula and research agendas – and, crucially, what we could do to help. A year later, in the Slovak splendour of Smolenice Castle, the late Rex Stainton Rogers, Slovak psychologists and I got down to putting together a bid to the British Council for collaborative research. 

Fast forward to 2019 when ISCHP held a very successful conference in Bratislava, hosted by the Slovak Association for Critical Psychology, comprising a small but dedicated group of third-generation Slovak psychologists. Much water had passed under many bridges in the interim, with slow and sometimes fraught progress being made. Complete regime change can never be fast or easy, as all sorts of hierarchies and structures have to be dismantled. The shift had to be made from State-run economics, riddled with blat and nepotism, to a new world of rampant capitalism, and the even more malignant economics of neoliberalism.

So – why attend the EHPS conference? Why set up a symposium? I had been to one of their conferences long time ago, and found them very mainstream, behaviour-change focused, and hostile to anything regarded in the least ‘unscientific’. But a ramble through their recent website told me that things have changed a bit. For a start, I found a fair proportion of women involved, and many in positions of power, though that seemed to be as far as diversity and inclusion went.

It was about time, I thought, that we in ISCHP moved on from mostly talking to lovely, like-minded ISCHPers and started re-engaging with the mainstream. I used the ISCHP list to recruit five others and together we put together a symposium of critical psychology papers on Health Inequalities. We wanted to draw attention to the extent and severity of health inequalities, and that they are becoming worse, both within nations and globally. We have  become really worried about the serious harm being done, both to those who experience disadvantage and also those populations where inequity is so extreme it causes widespread damage to health.

Bridgette Rickett began the session with her discursive review of how psychology has, historically, systematically blamed the ‘working class’ for their ill-health. She would have none of this! Calling for ‘nothing less than transformation’ she made a powerful case for recognising that the culpability actually lies in class-based injustice. Joanna Goldthorpe followed up with her work on the bias that gets built into social prescribing. This is, she said, because of the failure to collect data on the impact of socio-economic factors (like employment, education or housing). On the surface, she said, while social prescribing can be good for the ‘haves’, benefits like this can obscure just how excluding it can be for the ‘have-nots’. Emma Anderson then took up the theme of solution seeking, reporting on a project that centres co-production in planning how health services can improve access for people who are homeless.

Nicolás Schöngut-Grollmus, changed track, looking specifically at the way that people with very rare conditions get excluded from the health services they need. He was followed by Tushna Vandrevala, whose research sought to gain insight into how culture may influence access to and use of heath information in Black and South-Asian communities in the UK. Its findings – such as the importance of trust, and the key role played by different expectations of medical care – offer clear guidelines for making health-care services more accessible and more effective in their impact.

The discussion that followed was largely very positive. Delegates thanked us for raising this important issue, and expressed support for taking it further in future EHPS conferences. One person expressed his surprise that nobody had mentioned neoliberalism – to which we, rather mischievously, replied, that we had come ‘to make trouble – but not that much trouble!’ 

After the conference we got together to debrief what happened and to make plans for next steps. The main lesson we took from the conference is that we were in the right place at the right time! Many people there were recognising that qualitative methodologies are the best way  to conduct research into the psychological processes that generate and sustain the harms of inequity, and that our interpretative approach will offer a more effective way to tackle them. 

Wendy, receiving her award at Comenius University

In the weeks building up to the conference I got a bit annoyed with the way my pharmacist (in charge of my medical needs when travelling away) kept referring to my trip as a ‘holiday’. ‘ ‘We are’, I said, somewhat pompously ‘not going for fun – we’re putting our heads in the lions den’. I told him it really mattered, and could make a real difference. And it did! We got a surprisingly large audience (I think the twitter bombing helped!). And afterwards we recruited a fair number of disillusioned health psychologist to join ISCHP. We plan to do more next year in Bremen.

And now a bit of a personal ego trip!  I got awarded a gold medal from Comenius University where the conference was held, in recognition of my contribution to critical health psychology in Slovakia. It’s good to know that troublemakers can actually get given prizes, don’t you think!

About the author

Wendy Stainton Rogers was a founder member of ISCHP and still gets involved whenever she can. In 2014 she retired to Yorkshire, living in the glorious Pennine hills. Academically she splits her time between ‘making trouble’ and ‘being kind’ (especially to students, ECRs and, indeed, anyone she can tempt away from the mainstream in their psychology) and generally growing old as disgracefully as she is able. Currently she is writing a book: The Psychology of Illness, Health, Wellbeing and Welfare and is looking for critical readers.

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