No, I’m not a biologist studying monotremes! I have a short presentation coming up, where I’ll be introducing myself as a visiting researcher. And I’ve noticed lately that when I describe my research program in outline, people sometimes (visibly!) struggle to see how it all fits together.
As a trainee researcher I’m constantly inspired by Dr Crystal Abidin, who studies internet influencers and microcelebrities (among other things), and the way she narrates her experiences and adventures as an early career researcher. These narratives help make visible the challenges of navigating the rapidly-changing employment landscape for doctoral graduates. In documenting their negotiation, Crystal sets down way-markers for researchers making their own journeys across the same terrain.
In developing this presentation I was thinking about how to introduce myself as an academic and an Australian. I’ve long felt an affinity for the platypus, since we both have very poor hearing and vision – and this is something I am increasingly having to disclose in work contexts. But the analogy goes deeper – the platypus caused a major problem for taxonomy.
When naturalists taking part in the British invasion of Australia first brought a platypus back to England, leaders of their field were so bamboozled by its mix of features – a duck’s bill, otter feet and beaver tail – they insisted it must be fake and cut it open looking for the stitching. It represents defiance of those scholars who are committed to taxonomy – dividing scholarship into discrete faculties and disciplines. My own research program includes elements that look pretty odd together – like using cultural studies to think about markets as complex systems, or using legal theory to think about what counts as evidence in public health.
This lists my interests rather than discrete bits of work, and they look pretty divergent – yet these are themes that come up repeatedly in my work on very diverse topics. For example, I draw on similar theory when thinking about community-based HIV prevention as I do when thinking about market stewardship. In both cases, I’m thinking about the limitations on our ability to understand and influence complex systems.
When dealing with complex systems, you’re always operating under conditions of uncertainty – complexity makes it impossible to know, in a timely or comprehensive fashion, what the system is doing now (or will do in future). Under those conditions, all you can do is try something and see what happens. Instead of knowing and then doing – which is the paradigm that informs most academic research and deeply misguided efforts at ‘knowledge translation’ – it’s a matter of knowing-by-doing.
Theory comes to play a particularly important role in this epistemology of practice. Social and cultural theory can be sensitising devices, suggesting where to look and what to look for. We are also constantly engaged in theory-building about our contextual environment – and our implicit theory (sometimes described as ‘mental models’) can be an important source of data to elicit in research seeking to build explicit theory.
Community-based health promotion is a site where practices have emerged for working effectively and ethically under conditions of uncertainty. For example, workers in a peer-based needle exchange might identify a change in street-based drugs markets that has implications for safe injecting. It could take a couple of years to launch academic research into the change – but the program needs to respond now. It may convene an action group to get different perspectives on the shift – which helps reduce the changes of being wrong, but also diffuses the political risk. Practitioners have their own epistemology that is grounded and embedded in practices for dealing with the uncertainty that is ever-present when dealing with complexity.
Right now there are two main pathways in my research program – one focused on communities and the other on markets.
Because I see practice as such an important site for learning and theorising, I’ve worked to maintain my own skills and investments as a facilitator, writer, activist and health promotion practitioner. Given the time and energy this takes, this isn’t always an easy balance to negotiate – but I learn as much from this involvement as more formal research ‘methods.’
Early on in my PhD I wanted to conduct an ethnography of campaign-making from within health promotion agencies in HIV and cancer prevention. After a year of trying to recruit partner organisations, I shifted my focus to emerging, ‘interstitial’ organisations – working in the gaps left by more-established, government-funded agencies. Because they are new and operating with a startup-like ‘move fast and break things’ approach, my two case studies are an incredibly rich source of knowledge about the complexities of community organisation and mobilisation.
But I still regretted not having that inside perspective on campaign-making. Earlier this year, in my practice as an activist and communication strategist, the opportunity came up to develop a campaign of my own – featuring a short film and digital resource focused on event-based PrEP. The campaign launched last week, right before I jumped on a plane to Montréal for six months. (Ooft, timing.) And while it’s not part of my PhD research, it still provided an opportunity to think about engagement from that inside perspective.
You can watch the film below and visit the website rinseandrepeat.info to view the end result. (Warning: it’s NSFW AF!)
Postscript — under no circumstances should you buy me little platypus figurines. (Plushies are acceptable.)