I am currently Canada Research Chair in Narrative Studies, Professor of Social Work and Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Narrative (CIRN) at St Thomas University in Fredericton.
2) What is your educational background?
I have a BA and MA in Education from the University of Cambridge in the UK, an MA in Social Work from the University of Leicester, a Certificate of Qualification in Social Work, a PhD from the University of Sheffield and a Post-graduate Certificate in Leadership and Management in Higher Education from the University of Bradford. I also hold a qualification in Adult Education and Training.
3) Talk a little about your career path. Where did your passion for the research/work that you do originate and how did it develop?
I suppose I have always loved stories. I loved reading as a child and while I do not read novels very much now I love the movies, especially movies with good stories. Growing up I loved the stories of the underdogs – probably something I got from my mum and dad. Later on I got to know the stories of such inspirational characters as Joe Hill, the Jesuits in Latin America, the Catholic Worker movement and I wanted to be part of that sort of tradition. At some level I believe that stories can change the world.
I have never really had a grand plan for my career. Having said that I have been very fortunate in the people I have met and the opportunities that have come my way. My PhD supervisor, Tim Booth, introduced me to narrative ways of thinking and that’s stayed with me, throughout. I conducted my doctoral research on allegations of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (an alleged form of child abuse) focusing on the stories of mothers who had been wrongly accused or against whom the allegations were not substantiated. In particular I was interested in how it was that social workers and others constructed narratives of guilt on the basis of very little evidence. Since then I have analyzed the rhetoric of such cases and the narrative techniques deployed in order to construct a persuasive story. As I wrote in one article, “Who needs fact when you’ve got narrative?” From there I worked as a social worker for a while until I secured a post-doctoral position at the University of Oxford, exploring the ethical issues facing family carers of people living with dementia. For three years I was paid, really quite well, to travel the country listening to the stories of carers. I remember my spiritual director at one stage saying that being afforded the opportunity to listen to the stories of others is an invitation to stand on holy ground. Those three years were an immense privilege.
When the Canada Research Chair post came up I thought it was a long shot. I had been applying for posts in Canada for a while but not being a Canadian resident was a disadvantage. Anyhoove, the advertisement came up and who can resist applying for a job that basically said. ‘Tell us what you’d like to do for five years and if we like it we’ll pay you to do it’? Once again a door opened for me and I am now in a position to follow my narrative interests wherever they may lead. If I did not have this job, I would be extremely envious of the person who did.
4) Tell us about one or two of your current projects?
I have a number of projects underway and in the pipeline. I am currently working with colleagues at CIRN on a project on resilience and narrative amongst older adults. We are exploring how the stories that older adults tell about their lives and coping with adversity reflect and contribute to a sense of resilience. Much work on resilience is undertaken using questionnaires (on a scale of 1 to X how resilient are you?), which gives one picture but we can learn other things about resilience by listening to the stories of older people. 100+ older adults completed a resilience questionnaire and from there we selected about 45 people to interview. Participants were asked to tell the story of their lives, to talk about how they have dealt with adversity, and how they saw their faith (if any) and the future. What we are finding is that there are aspects of resilience that are not captured by the questionnaire, the more social, interpersonal aspects.
Another project I am working on is a study of transableism – the desire to become disabled. This is sometimes called Body Integrity Identity Disorder. Some people, who are able-bodied, experience very strong feelings of ‘wrongness’ with their bodies. Sometimes this manifests itself in the desire or need for an amputation of a limb, sometimes for paralysis, occasionally deafness or blindness. At various times this has been labeled in psychiatric or neurological terms but there has not been any significant study of what it is like to experience this. I have been interviewing a number of participants who define themselves as ‘transabled’ asking them to talk about their lives, how they understand their feelings, the reactions of others and so on. I have received an SSHRC grant to conduct the study with the aim of promoting understanding of the phenomenon and the experience of having to negotiate a viable identity in the face of misunderstanding and sometimes hostility.
5) How do you see your research/work in terms of possibly contributing to evidence-based public policy?
I am hoping that the transableism study will contribute to the debate as to the acceptability of elective surgery. Currently, it is extremely difficult for transabled people to find a legal way of securing an elective amputation and some feel driven to unsafe means (covert operations or self-amputations) in order to bring their bodies into line with how they see and experience themselves. A greater understanding of the phenomenon and the experience will, hopefully, feed into the ethical decision-making process.
Another project I am currently involved in, and am seeking funding for, is to develop a new model of consultation and citizen engagement in the policy making process, particularly around the issue of dementia care services. The group involved consists of academics and people from government, non-government organizations and the SPRN itself. This project is specifically designed to develop public policy in the area of dementia care through a grassroots approach to consultation. We are in the process of submitting an application to the CIHR Partnerships for Health System Improvement program and are hoping to be included in the emerging Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging.
6) Discuss any past achievements that were significant to your professional path? Have any contributed to the promotion of evidence-based public policy?
My post-doctoral research was conducted at the Ethox Centre at the University of Oxford and funded by the Alzheimer’s Society in the UK. This focused on the ethical issues faced by family carers of people living with dementia. This work was published under the auspices of the educational part of the AS and later, when I worked for the Bradford Dementia Group at the University of Bradford, UK where I was Senior Lecturer in Dementia Studies, we were consulted during the development of the National Dementia Strategy and by the Nuffield Foundation in developing their report on the ethical issues involved in dementia. While at the Bradford Dementia Group, a colleague and myself were engaged by the Commission for Rural Communities (a quasi-governmental organization) to develop a research briefing paper on dementia and rurality as part of their campaign to highlight the difficulties faced by rural communities and to develop policies to support rural England.
7) Describe in a couple of sentences your involvement with NBSPRN and how your relationship with the Network has contributed to your research/work and/or to social/economic policy?
I have been working closely with Eric Gionet, former Outreach Director at NBSPRN, on the project to develop a new model of consultation and a dementia care policy for NB. His advice, support and guidance has been invaluable in shaping the project and enabling us to seek support from a wide range of agencies and individuals with an interest in the area. The SPRN has helped us to bridge the gap between academia and the policy-making world.
8) Do you have any final thoughts?
Am I naïve in thinking that stories can change the world? Perhaps. But according to Tony de Mello, the shortest distance between a person and the Truth is a story. The trick, I am informed, is not to take oneself too seriously. As de Mello says:- “No one is exempt from talking nonsense. The great misfortune is to do it solemnly.”