Tuesday 15 October 2019

Phenomenology of Health and Relationships

Today's post is by Michael Larkin and William Day (both at the University of Aston). They are reporting on the Phenomenology of Health and Relationships conference, which was sponsored by project PERFECT and held at the University of Aston on 22-23 May 2019.

We're both participants in the Phenomenology of Health and Relationships group at Aston University. In planning our inaugural conference, the group initially considered a narrower focus on Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). There is a regular (more-or-less annual) IPA Conference, and we had agreed to host it. Eventually we settled on a broader theme (Creativity and Affect). IPA is one approach which many of us use in our work, but it is not the only one, and methods are not the sole focus of our meetings. When we meet as a group, we do discuss creative innovations in methodology, but we also read phenomenology, and explore studies which offer experiential insights on health and relationships. We hoped that a broader theme would open up dialogue around these cross-cutting issues and provide a space for thinking about the development of IPA, but also its relationship to philosophy and to other approaches. 

In our Call for Papers, we encouraged presenters to think about these cross-cutting issues, and also to feel free to suggest creative ways of engaging the attendees with their work. We were delighted to see, when the responses to our Call For Papers began to arrive, that there was a considerable appetite for an event like this. 

We ran our event at Fazeley Studios in Digbeth. The venue was lovely - spacious and light - and we had the good fortune to be running over two warm and bright spring days.

Zoë Boden’s invited workshop opened the event, with a morning focused on analysing image-making data in phenomological research. Zoë kicked things off by asking delegates to introduce themselves through drawings representing how they were feeling. Here's the image that Will made, as he brightened the corners of the unfolding morning of May 22nd -

During the workshop, Zoë drew upon her work exploring young peoples’ experience of psychosis, and her analytic framework (Boden, 2013; Boden & Eatough, 2014) for multi-modal analysis. Her workshop made a compelling argument for considering images as distinct residuals of subjectivity in their own right, not just as a way to elicit narrative data. After the session, the coffee break was buzzing with people enthusing about how they were going to incorporate these ideas into their next research project.

The conference’s first keynote came from Virginia Eatough whose talk developed a phenomenological perspective on affect. Virginia began with the premise that people are “existential world disclosers.” She positioned affect as a distinct layer of experience which orients ourselves towards others; a concern-ful, relational mode of involvement in the world. Virginia focused then on the power of language to make this manifest. Language is “in the world”, a practical engagement that helps us get to understanding. She develop this point through reference to an insightful analysis: ‘“It’s like having an evil twin”: the lifeworld of a person with Parkinson’s disease’ (Eatough & Shaw, 2019). In this case study, ‘Barbara’ - 61 years old and living with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease for four years – reflects on ‘losing her grip.’ The multiple meanings of ‘grip’ employed by Barbara, and expanded through Virginia’s analysis, illuminated the complex relationship between the loss of physical grip and encroaching psychological uncertainty.

Virginia Eatough

In the afternoon that followed, we had parallel sessions with fascinating papers on aspects of spiritual experience (David Wilde), parenting and health (Kristina Newman, Kat Slade, Lydia Aston) and coping with ongoing ill-being (Joanna Farr, Collette Beecher). Refreshed insights into the connections between method (from the morning), concepts (from the keynote) and research practice (in the afternoon papers) were already coming to the surface of our conversations in between the sessions.

In the call for papers, we had strongly encouraged submissions from presenters who wished to do something a little unusual with the format. We were fortunate enough to be able to end the first day with two really exciting and innovative examples of what conferences can do. In one session, William presented his multi-media reflections on the film “I, Daniel Blake”. He was too modest to mention it in his draft notes for this piece, of course, but this is a piece of work which foregrounds the way that the auditory and visual dimension of cultural narratives create experiential meaning for audiences. In the other session, Asztrik Kovacs and Daniel Kiss used music, song, narration and photographs to reflect on the experience of psychiatric hospitalisation in Hungary. The piece drew on family experience, archival images, and reflections on field research, and it was woven together into a single, unbroken flow of performance. This was a highlight of the conference for many of us, who loved the way that it evoked the intensity of connections that can still persist between people even when they are separated by time, place and experience.

On the second day, we began with two parallel sessions, one on the use of visual methods and other other on the role of writing.

In the writing session, Beth Moran had used ethnographic ‘i-poems’ to examine the emotional content of placements for student social workers. These were a powerfully ‘felt’ form of declarative statement. Tiago Moutela reflected on his use of written descriptions of men’s experiences of migraines, and Hilda Reilly invited us to think about the different effects of literal and expressive approaches to translation (via the example of the French poem, Tristesse by Louisa Siefert). PERFECT’s own Valeria Motta then showed how aspects of experience appear to us from pre-reflective dimensions, in the context of her work on loneliness and solitude, in order to argue that both micro-phenomenological and macro-interpretative approaches are required for successful analysis.

In the visual arts session, we began with two sessions of the use of drawings as data. Zoë Boden spoke about the link between metaphor, imagination and being-in-the-world, and Isabella Nizza reflected on how participants’ drawings changed over time in a longitudinal study of chronic pain. After that Amy Burton highlighted similar issues in the context of photo-elication work, and then Jorella Andrews reflected on phenomenology and IPA from a visual arts perspective. She suggested that we think of 'interviewing' as in invitation to see something together, opening up collaborative and non-linear ways of exploring meaning.

We reconvened for our final keynote, which was delivered by Havi Carel. Havi invited us to consider illness itself as a form of epoché. Havi argued that illness, through its life changing qualities and potential chronic-temporality disruption, is sufficiently significant and profound to reveal our embodiment to us in new ways, whilst broadening our spectrum of experience (e.g. pathological tiredness). She suggested that illness might prompt a suspension of our natural attitude - “putting it out of play” and thus shift us towards critical reflection. There was a lot to think about here, in the complex implications for lived experience researchers, in the more obvious way that it underlines the seriousness with which we must take patients’ accounts, and in the way that it invites us to remember that phenomenological insights can be attained via multiple routes.

Havi Carel

The second day also involved sessions from PHaR regular Chris Wagstaff, who addressed the difficulties of analysing focus group data when the researcher did not know or meet the participants. Within the research context of student’s experiences of aggression. Chris reflexively excavated his own process of attributing physical characteristics to the research participants. He reflected that, perhaps, some form of physical embodiment was necessary in order to ‘complete’ an analysis. Another PHaR member – Shioma-Lei Craythorne – also reflected on the relationship between her and her participants, but in the context of sharing their experience of the phenomenon under investigation.

The conference involved several fascinating sessions by a team taking a phenomenological approach to medical education. For example, Martina Kelly discussed the importance of empathy within a medicinal context, to explore the times when physicians can – or should – touch their patients. In another session, which highlighted the strong overlap between the interests of phenomenology and embodied cognition approaches, Gerry Gormley spoke about the difficulty of disclosing problems of right-left-hand discrimination amongst trainee doctors. It was really interesting to move between the presentations of this group, and some of the more methodological and theoretical sessions: one important feature of the conference was that it illuminated a clear and coherent line from a wide span of phenomenological ideas to several different forms of praxis.

We ended with a memorable mini-workshop facilitated by Tara Morrey. Tara filled the room with photographs of therapeutic spaces, taken with her research participants, and invited us to respond to them in some of the same ways that her participants had been invited to respond. After taking our feedback, she incorporated it into some her own analytic observations about the experiences that are opened up (and shut down) for therapy clients in the invitations and configurations of these spaces. It was a lovely way to end a brilliant conference: we moved around the room, we explored the images, we talked to each other, and then heard it all come together in Tara’s dramatic synopsis.

We wish to thank our delegates, presenters, and especially our marvellous keynotes (Prof Havi Carel, Dr Virginia Eatough), our invited convenors (Dr Zoë Boden, Prof Jonathan Smith), our superstar placement student and conference organiser (Kiran Gill), and all our friends and colleagues at PERFECT and PHaR.

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