Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Mad Activism and Academia

I went to a workshop at UCLan organised by Mick Mckeown and Helen Spandler, yesterday, called Unsettling Relations: Mad Activism and Academia. It was organised in part because of a visit by David Reville and Kathryn Church (pictured) from the School of Disability Studies, Ryerson University, Canada with whom UCLan has a relationship.

The explicit theme for the day was how mental health service user experience could be brought into academic life. The implicit tension was how this could happen in a way which didn’t distort, abuse or ‘colonise’ service users.

One of the commentators suggested that a key aim often missed was to value the lived experience of service users. Another said that academic researchers should not merely benefit from the experiences of service users: they should also give something back. A third (a service user researcher) expressed concerns about the idea of undergoing a PhD viva examination in order to validate her experiences. They needed no such validation, she argued, because they were valid in themselves in virtue of her having had them.

These concerns seem to me to be substantial and understandably motivated. But I wonder whether part of the problem is something that runs deep and confuses the issues. One of the central aims of academia is understanding and analysing the world, including the world of human subjectivity. Thus there is a difference between the having of experiences and finding a way to understand them. A key approach to such understanding is to draw out what is general in particular cases, for example by subsuming instances under general concepts. That is one very important way in which individual experiences might be valued in academic life: they exemplify a pattern and thus serve as a basis for prediction or explanation. So there is more to understanding than a mere re-presentation of an experience. Thus it is a kind of category error to think that experiences might – or might not – be validated in a viva: it is the analysis of the experiences that might be not the experiences themselves.

If so, I wonder whether issues become confused when what is to be valued, and how, becomes confused. One can indeed value and respect someone’s experiences. Suffering, to take one example, seems to demand a kind of respect as well as sympathy in its own right. But I don’t see that as primarily an academic matter but rather a more general inter-personal obligation. By contrast, the kind of valuing that belongs particularly to academia is the value of understanding, in this case, experience.

The potential for a confusion between experience and an understanding of experience seemed to me increased by the main mode of presentation at the workshop. Most of the ten presentations took the form of first person narratives. Now a narrative is not simply a brute presentation of experience. Kathryn Church, for one, made explicit reference to how much and how often she had worked on parts of her own self-account. (Her book, by the way, carries the subtitle: Critical Autobiography as Social Science.) There’s an implicit analysis in the selection of what is presented and what not. But none of these stories attempted to advance an argument or make a general claim. By the end, I wondered whether the sequence of particular cases was part of the problem. With merely an aggregation of individual cases and an eschewing of an argument to a general claim, it was hard to frame a good reason to change one’s mind on anything. What follows from any, possibly unrepresentative, particular case?

PS: For a related point which grew from this workshop see this later entry.