‘Troubling Narratives: Identity Matters’:Conference at the University of Huddersfield by Dina Poursanidou

On 19th and 20th June I attended the ‘Troubling Narratives: Identity Matters’ Conference at The Institute for Research in Citizenship and Applied Human Sciences in the University of Huddersfield. The  Call for Papers for the Troubling Narratives: Identity Matters’ Conference indicated:

troubling narratives conference themes _diagram

Narrative’ is well known for its looseness of definition, its multiplicity of approaches and its interdisciplinarity, which over the years has led to a richness and diversity of narrative work. Identities, both private and public and individual and collective, have long been a focus for narrative researchers, where the content, form and effects of identity story-telling have been explored in a range of areas and contexts.

The focus of ‘Troubling Narratives: Identity Matters’ is to address the ‘troubles’ that now surround contemporary narratives of identity, and the ways in which previous work may simultaneously inform but also trouble and be ‘troubled’ by new narrative work in the broad area of ‘identities’.

At the conference there were contributions from researchers interested in using narratives across a range of disciplines, including sociology, gender studies, psychology, law, politics, criminology, philosophy, history, anthropology, social work, education, health, and business and management.

Topics of interest to the conference included (though they were not restricted to) the following areas:

There were 2 excellent keynote talks by Anne Phoenix and Ken Plummer focussing on narrative research and the troubles surrounding it. I also attended a number of brilliant papers at parallel sessions  over the 2 days; some of the conference papers are available to download on the conference website (http://troublingnarratives.wordpress.com).

On Friday 20th June I presented a paper at a parallel session entitled ‘Negotiating unsettled and unsettling identities: How to respond to this task creatively?’ The slides from my presentation can be accessed here Troubling narratives conference_K Poursanidou_20 June 2014.

My presentation used a piece of qualitative auto-ethnographic research to reflect critically on unsettled/troubled and unsettling/troubling identities, as well as on the possibilities of negotiating such identities creatively. The research in question that started in 2011 and is continually evolving, has drawn on my lived experience of working as a Service User Researcher in two English Universities to explore my unremitting struggles in the process of re-entering Academia following a severe and enduring mental health crisis that commenced whilst I was employed as a Research Fellow in an English HEI.

Using a psychosocial theoretical framework and a critical auto-ethnographic approach, where my personal narrative of identity has been used to inform critical social analysis, the research has sought to ask wider questions about the manifold and complex ways in which affective, intersubjective, institutional as well as socio-cultural, political and economic dimensions of experience interplay in shaping mental health service user involvement in University-based research.

Data sources in my auto-ethnographic research project involve:

  1. my reflexive research journal
  2. reflexive notes from individual psychotherapy sessions that I have been attending as a client and where the challenges of being a mental health service user researcher have been worked through
  3. email communication with my psychotherapist and other service user researchers and academics
  4. artwork and creative writing reflecting my struggle to make sense of my mental health crisis and heal myself
  5. my mental health care notes from the period of my detention in an acute inpatient ward (Jan-April 2009)
  6. informal conversations with other Service User Researchers; and vii) presentations and discussions of my continually developing auto-ethnography with different audiences.

The main focus of  my presentation concerned my ongoing identity and other struggles implicated in the task of constructing and negotiating my double identity as an academic researcher and a mental health service user. This has been a task full of complexities, challenges, paradoxes, contradictions and ambiguities as I inhabit what could be described as a liminal space in between academic research and the psychiatric survivor movement – a difficult, transgressive, unsettled, contested and unsettling identity space that can also open up creative possibilities.

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Particular attention was paid to what has emerged as a core and deeply troubling emotional experience for me in this liminal identity space – my profoundly ambivalent relationship with my mental health crisis occurring in 2008-2010, my mental health service user identity and my mental health service user researcher subjectivity/role as well. Key concepts that have helped me interrogate this liminal identity space were also considered, including the concepts of ‘liminality’ (Behar, 1996; Short, Grant and Clarke, 2007), ‘hybrid identity’ (Grant, 2013), ‘paradoxical space’ (Spandler, 2009), ‘lived contradictions’ (Cresswell and Spandler, 2013) and ‘unsettling relations’ (Bannerji et al., 1991; Church, 1995).

Finally, in my presentation I discussed my attempts to negotiate and respond creatively to the ‘unsettlement’ that I experience as deriving from my troubled and troubling mental health service user researcher identity, without being paralysed by the often overwhelming challenges the identity in question presents me with.

Particular attention was paid to story-telling and theorising of my experience in various contexts and fora, as well as to my involvement with collective action in mental health politics, as critically important creative responses to this ‘unsettlement’.

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