Proceedings of the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
Martin Terre Blanche & Johan Kruger
The first two South African qualitative methods conferences, "A spanner in the works of the factory of truth" (1995) and "The Body Politic" (1996), established the annual event as something more than purely a methodology conference. An eclectic blend of contributions from high profile international researchers and local students, academic papers and performance art, postmodern entertainment and serious political critique, the conferences tried to give substance to the notion that qualitative methods are not (just) about particular techniques, but also about enquiring into the politics of knowledge production more broadly.
Apart from social, political and status differentials among those attracted to the conferences there were also many other divisions, for example between those working from a phenomenological-interpretative versus a critical-discursive frame and those interested in methodological innovation versus theoretical critique. Thus the conferences, although providing a sense of community for qualitative researchers, have also increasingly become a setting where the value of one's intellectual currency becomes uncertain and where it is easy to feel out of place. Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, a growing theme at the conferences has been to explore the social construction of what is considered abnormal, marginal and deviant.
The theme of the third conference, "Touch me I'm sick" (1997), was intended to encourage just this: Further exploration of the territories of normality, pathology and exclusion. We were interested in how 'normal' and 'deviant' human subjectivities are constructed in fields such as medicine, psychology, education and the media and invited paper proposals in areas such as pornography/ antipornography, ultra-violence, cybersex, and queer theory. Interestingly the theme (which is from a song by a band called Mudhoney) seemed to give more offense than in previous years and we had to deal with quite a few irate e-mails from individuals who felt that by encouraging people to touch the diseased we may be endangering public health. In a metaphorical sense there may be some substance to their fears.
The conference, held at the University of South Africa's Durban regional centre on 8 and 9 September 1997, had to be partly organised by remote control from Johannesburg and Pretoria. As a result (and perhaps also because the theme was not universally popular), attendances were lower than at previous conferences. In addition, the venue was not particularly conducive to social mingling. Nevertheless, many highly interesting and provocative papers were presented (a selection of which are reproduced in these proceedings), and heated and informative discussions occurred. There were also some striking audiovisual and live performances, posters, and a small art exhibition.
Authors were invited to contribute papers to the proceedings either as formal academic articles or as informal works-in-progress, or as something in between, and there is therefore considerable stylistic variation among papers. In addition a few authors elected to include informal contextual comments with their papers. The intention with the proceedings is not only to serve as a partial record of the event, but also to encourage further dialogue. To this end we have wherever possible included authors' e-mail addresses or other contact details.
In terms of content, papers have been grouped into six sections, although many other readings are of course also possible. Section 1, Gender, sexuality and representation, deals with lesbianism, homosexuality and other marginalised forms of sexual expression, as well as with issues of gender, power and resistance. In a closely argued paper Fiona Scorgie explores the dilemmas raised for feminist theorists by the phenomenon of lesbian pornography, while Pravani Naidoo discusses historical shifts in the (self) representation of homosexual men - from pansies, to perverts, to macho-men. She also uses this material as a case study for examining the utility of the discourse analytic approach to what was once considered psychopathology. Extending the theme of resistance to established cultural orders, Tamara Shefer describes the many ways in which students at the University of the Western Cape resist rigid and restrictive categories of femininity and masculinity in a patriarchal society. Moving from 'real' to 'virtual' contexts, Andrew Thatcher and Andee Feldman present the results of a survey on cybersex. While the students in Shefer's paper struggle to establish more fluid identities within an overtly restrictive regime, Thatcher and Feldman show that even where traditional constraints on gender and sexual roles ostensibly no longer apply, interactional possibilities 'naturally' gravitate towards conservative stereotypes.
Section 2, Discourses of culture, contain two papers by Alain Tschudin and Sebastian Potter & Vaughan Dutton respectively. These papers are critical examinations of media reports on two seemingly very different South African cultural phenomena - going to the Durban beach and being attacked by a river monster in the Eastern Cape. Both papers expose the persistence of colonial discursive formations that continue to divide South Africans into us and them. Where Potter & Dutton rely on a close reading of media reports to expose the racist underbelly of ostensibly rational accounts of beach behaviour, Tschudin delves into a variety of supplementary sources as well, in the process uncovering some remarkable overlaps between 'European' and 'African' culture.
The papers in Section 3, Power and knowledge in education, are concerned with the ways in which authority and control are exercised at South African universities (Caitlin Evans and Zubair Moomal) and schools (Mary van der Riet). Like the papers by Tschudin and Potter & Dutton in the previous section, Evan's paper is an analysis of media reports on a quintessentially New South African crisis - in this case student 'unrest' at two universities in the Northern Province. Evans shows how media reports rely on constructions of students as destructive and a threat to social order in order to justify authoritarian responses to events. Moomal's paper takes us from the overt battles of student politics to the more subtle epistemological conflicts that occur in the apparent calm of the lecture hall. In a wry analysis he highlights the dangers of an exclusive emphasis on quantitative research techniques in Psychology, and presents evidence suggesting that, although initially puzzled, students respond well to having research techniques presented within a critical philosophical context. Van der Riet's paper also has to do with what is appropriate material for learning and teaching, but at schools rather than at universities. In particular, her focus is on the sometimes widely divergent views held by learners, teachers and parents. However, as in Moomal's paper, she moves beyond critique to introduce a constructive new technique, the dialogue game, which holds great promise for making South African schools more democratic and effective institutions.
Section 4, Gendered medicine, contains two chapters dealing with women and medicine. Jo Wainer traces the shameful history of how women, and the special bodies of knowledge they have developed, have been excluded from modern medicine, and describes the dire consequences this has had for patient care. Kay Hampton carefully documents and analyses one attempt at redressing this situation - a health promotion project in Glasgow in which both professional and 'lay' women took a leading role. In addition to being an interesting case study of race, gender and empowerment, this paper is also a fine example of qualitatively oriented programme evaluation research.
Section 5, The politics of therapy, brings together papers on the relationship between psychiatrists, psychologists and their clients. Felicity Bielovich recounts her personal experiences with inappropriate medication and draws lessons from this on the value of listening in psychotherapy. In a similar vein Anthony Theuninck argues that therapists should acknowledge the limits of their understanding and promote a co-constructionist view of knowledge in therapy. He illustrates this with reference to same sex desire. Alastair Mundy-Castle presents another illustration in the form of co-constructed understandings which are captured in 'Mindscapes' painted in cooperation with clients. This is a very special client-therapist relationship in which: "No one pays. No one gives. It's a two way interaction." In contrast to these essentially up-beat depictions of therapy as susceptible to humanist reform, Derek hook argues from a Foucaultian perspective that therapy is inextricably part of modern disciplinary power which aims to bring about useful and docile subjects, and that it becomes ever more so as it develops more humane forms of application.
In the final section, Constructing the Self, Kenneth Wilson considers the implications of a move from a modernist 'self-as-entity' to a postmodern 'selves- as- social- constructs' for institutions such as psychotherapy, while Lance Lachenicht & Graham Lindegger argue that modern selves are constructed in a dual process of Foucaultian panopticism and spectacle.
We trust that you will find these proceedings a useful and interesting contribution to the growing South African literature on qualitative methods and the politics of knowledge production.
Histories of the Present
In drawing its theme, "Histories of the present", from Foucault's methodological (and genealogical) injunction at the beginning of Discipline and Punish (1979), the Fourth Annual South African Qualitative Methods Conference is not hoping to station itself in the present and thus make enquiry into an opaque past. Its objective, by contrast, is to bring together work within various (and broadly understood) qualitative methodologies that have the capacity to uproot the commonplace understandings, normalities and subjectivities of present knowledge, lives and practices. Its primary focus, the goals of its overall objectives, lie strongly then in 'the now', in historicizing the present, in surfacing objects, structures and technologies typically considered to lie outside of history. In this regard it is important that the conference recognizes the legitimate and central role of art-production and performance as means of enquiry, critical practice and knowledge-creation. This much is reflected in the choice of Orlan, French Artist and Art-Historian, as one of the conference's keynote speaker's/ participants. The fact that practices of art-production and performance belong to a different epistemological and ontological order (i.e. the aesthetic) to that of typical social science praxis is in many ways the very reason they are able to so throw critical light upon and displace the objects of the latter's knowledge.
Further foundational to the conference theme and premise is the current political imperative posed by the historical present of today's Post-Apartheid South Africa. The concern here, as recently voiced in a conference on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission ('From Truth to Transformation - The Road to Reconciliation', Johannesburg, April, 1998), is of the increasing political complacency, especially amongst white South Africans, in terms of their participation within the current phase of transition. The focus of this imperative is encapsulated by the title of the recent BBC documentary 'Apartheid Did Not Die'. Clearly however, the objective of renewing a sense of political urgency is one of application beyond the South African context. To this end, the final session of the conference will attempt to consolidate all that has been presented across the two days by considering what methodological formulations, procedures (and combinations thereof) might best form the basis of sound political strategy in the future - both locally and globally.
Finally, there are a number of strategies internal to the conference that will be adopted to ensure its efficacy. Firstly, in terms of its objectives of securing for South Africa a spot on the international qualitative social science conference calendar, the convenors have embarked on an ambitious e-mail publicity campaign, so as to solicit greater international participation. Leading on from this however, the conference is still obviously determined to maintain its South African locus, and focus of enquiry. To this end the convenors have likewise embarked on a more expansive publicity campaign on the homefront, such that the most highly regarded of local academics and artists may be involved, and involved with a far larger and far more representational student attendance at this year's conference.
In this respect, and secondly, it is hoped that by pairing off foreign attendees with local, out-of-town participants with 'locals' that the conference will play a part in fostering collaborative efforts and understandings between groups from different locations and groundings, across different areas of expertise and knowledge both locally and globally. Thirdly, by assigning to more senior participants a student poster/ presentation/ performance/ art-piece to critique, it is hoped that the basics for an informal and productive mentoring relationship might be established, which would offer not only obvious educational value, but which may furthermore ultimately also open up opportunities for younger or historically disadvantaged participants.