As I write we’re entering our fifth week of lockdown and I am currently reorienting the ‘who with’ and ‘how with’ part of my PhD. In the meantime, the feedback between theory and practice will have to be through applying a conceptual perspective to my own life. This perspective comes from the concept of communities of practice1 and its descriptions of how meaning, identity and belonging are formed. This view is applied to analysing how the process of participating in arts and culture can create and maintain health. During this lockdown there has been a proliferation of examples, from the sourdough craze to the rise of crochet and neighbourhood singing. Maybe this is the opportunity for me to make kimchi, explore my many neglected cookbooks and finally knit stylish, cosy jumpers for my dogs. I can bring my conceptual framework to life through the practice of conceptualising participation as learning with others, such as online forums to share experiences or blogs to learn techniques. I can reflect on whether this participation can both maintain my mental and physical health and write my research equivalent of King Lear.
None of these things have happened. My focus and productivity are sporadic. I haven’t even binged a TV show, let alone been actively creative. There are plenty of resources that say this is to be expected and, help to soothe the debilitating feeling that now is the time for productivity and creativity whether personally or professionally. Some are aimed at PhD students and shared through communities.2 My conceptual perspective identifies non-productivity itself as a practice, through this mutual engagement, shared repertoire and joint enterprise of staying well through the COVID-19 pandemic. Together, we will take each day as it comes, celebrate the small wins, and learn how to walk through The Valley of Deep (COVID) Shit3. There’s the repeated line ‘you are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.’ A reminder that you’re juggling responsibilities, new roles, ways of working and worries.
Since I don’t have any distractions at home, no juggling act, care work or adjustment to online working, I don’t feel I belong to the community of non-productivity. My conceptual framework states that the concepts of practice and identity are profoundly connected and relate to meaning and belonging. Without either a productive or non-productive practice, it is predictable that my identity as a PhD student is evaporating, as are my other practices and identities, which are all now curtailed by lockdown. How do I start to take the suggested small steps back into the practice of being a PhD student or even being a participant in everyday life and recover a sense of self?
At this point, my application of my conceptual perspective falters. However, it does provide an emphasis on an individual’s knowledge and experience. I’m familiar with the ongoing process of acknowledging the validity of your own challenges and not minimising your feelings. I have learnt to not compare my experiences to a pregnant woman, crossing the pirate-filled Gulf of Thailand in a wee boat to a future of either being trapped with a new born in a refugee camp or an as yet unknown life in a uncontemplated country. I can apply this knowledge in order to try not to compare myself to those who seem to be negotiating productivity and non-productivity. I’ve been working on the task of leaving my feelings out there, to not dismiss them as trivial compared to what other people must being going through. I find it helps to let emotions breathe and take form, in order to provide the shape of something to acknowledge, to help voice ‘I’m not fine’ to something and, hopefully, someone. I’ve found honesty with yourself helps meaningful connections grow, and if you’re lucky, one of those productive people might leave baked goods on your doorstep and help you find a practice.4 This process has taken me to a place where I can start to act on the advice of setting achievable goals,5 enjoy moments rather than activities6 and so create the conditions for taking those small steps back into PhD practice and myself.
Resulting Sketch of Dog
1Etienne Wenger (1998), Communities of Practice – Learning, Meaning and Identity
4 Pistachio and rosewater cookies. Unexpectedly my practice seems to be organising fitness workouts based around mathematical sequences. There is even a process of reification, where form is given to experience and objects articulating the experience are created, as I have been given a logo. Reification and participation are a duality that constitute the concept of negotiating meaning that is the basis of practice and identity. Maybe my conceptual framework is coming to life, as I seem to be forming an identity as an unqualified fitness organiser.
5 I might not have made kimchi but I have finally made the most basic form of pickles. I’m now making up for all the years of missing the flavour and texture combination of the world’s finest sandwich, Bánh mì.
6 It’s not a stylish dog jumper, it’s a moment. I haven’t used these pencils since I purchased them last year. I’m finally acting on the celebrating small wins!
There’s one benefit of what my PhD colleague calls Interdisciplinary Imposter Syndrome, I feel I can be part of both the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science (SGSSS) and Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities (SGSAH). So, I took advantage of their summer schools’ wide range of talks and training in the last couple of weeks. Unfortunately, I was doubled booked for the Interdisciplinary Round Table! Instead, I was at the Health and Inequalities in an era of Crises symposium. There was an interesting range of health inequalities talks covering population and individual health, discussing crises from austerity, to populism and Brexit and including methods from discourse analysis to structural equation modelling.
The symposium stressed the urgency of dealing with health inequalities, describing how progress has stalled and is likely to worsen if action isn’t taken.This is one of the reasons why my research focusses on this area. One area I’m exploring, is how this research has been dominated by social epidemiology and needs to broaden the view of what it considers to be causal evidence. A related area is how research needs to be more in touch with lived-in experiences. So it was great that the symposium also raised these points and talked about how a mix of social epidemiology and qualitative research is vital. Both for understanding what health inequalities looks like from an individual perspective but also examining ways to help to articulate messages. It’s always nice have confirmation that your interests align with research and societal needs!
My research looks at psychosocial factors, which are any factors that affect health outcomes through psychological mechanisms. It was interesting that although this wasn’t discussed in the symposium as a topic most talks referred to specific factors, such as fear, loss of control and meaninglessness, which are directly related to this field.
How do I explore mechanisms? Again the graduate school training has been a help. SGSSS held a great workshop on Critical Realism and Realist Evaluations, something which interested me prior to beginning this PhD. There was a helpful prompt from one of instructors reminding me why I signed up for a PhD. Mechanisms, compared to outcomes, are time and resource intensive to investigate. Which is why we have a lot of evidence, for example in the field Arts and Health, of what works. On the other hand, the body of evidence explaining why something works is less well established. Therefore, a PhD with its luxurious 3 year timescale (which still feels too short), rather than 3 months, is a great opportunity to pursue this; we should make the most of this rare opportunity to dig deep!
I’m now four months into my PhD in the field of arts and health within the context of cultural regeneration. I have a professional background in economic development consultancy and working as a research assistant at Citizens Advice Scotland. This role developed my interest in the social determinants of health. It helped me to better understand how people move in and out of poverty, poverty’s many dimensions and the everyday experience of living on a low income. The wide variety of volunteering roles I’ve undertaken have all involved improving people’s health and wellbeing including through art, sport, community tourism, the reduction of social isolation and the mood enhancing benefits of being around dogs. This PhD is a great opportunity to develop these experiences and interests in a research environment.
I am currently building a theoretical foundation for my doctoral research. I am exploring the ways in which the disciplines of health, art and urban studies have defined themselves, each other and how they have conceptualised and addressed health inequalities, social inclusion and regeneration. There are a lot of contested terms and areas so I’m in the process of analysing the tensions within and between disciplines.
It is challenging to bring together different disciplines into a research framework to address complex social issues. Using a transdisciplinary approach gives me tools to tackle the challenge due to its innovative research methods and the emphasis on local knowledge. I’m naturally inclined to this approach, as I’m an outsider to these disciplines and to academia and someone who’s passionate about working holistically.
This approach requires trust and good relationships between local groups and people. In Paisley, I’ve been excited to see the collaborations across the public sector and with community organisations. For example, I represent CCSE in the Culture, Arts and Social Network. This is a group of education, health, social care, heritage and leisure stakeholders who have come together to influence the development and implementation of arts programmes in health and social care in Paisley. It’s a new group with a diverse range of programmes from art in hospitals to arts and education projects and social prescribing. I am looking forward to seeing how my research will develop alongside these activities.