CFP: Social Science in Public Health, September 2012, Cambridge

Call for Papers: One Day Symposium

TITLE: Beyond ‘Them’ and ‘Us’? Enacting social science within the public health research agenda on chronic illness

Tuesday 18 September 2012. Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge

Keynote Speakers: Professor David Armstrong, King’s College London; Professor Rose Barbour, Open University

For social scientists employed in public health settings, the activities, institutions and practices marked by the term ‘public health research’ may be approached conceptually in at least three different ways:
(a) as a ‘field of work’ within which they are located, for example as doctoral students, postdoctoral researchers and in more permanent posts (‘us’)
(b) as a ‘topic of enquiry’ (an aspect of society) they are called upon to investigate (‘them’)
(c) as a recursive activity, in which they, along with every other individual, form part of the research object as well as its agent, that is by being members of a population or ‘public’ (‘we’).

Beyond Them and Us aims to unpack and critically explore this triple dimension. As early career sociologists employed in a public health setting, we observe that colleagues from biomedically-oriented disciplines sometimes express the expectation that ‘our’ contribution ‘add meaning’ to ‘their’ findings, for instance data derived from controlled trials or policy initiatives based on models of ‘complex intervention’. Yet social science approaches prompt a critical evaluation of how such methods and epistemic practices themselves operate. Similarly, within the field of chronic illness, there is often a hiatus between ‘our’ and ‘their’ understandings of the nominally designated goal of research. For instance, the shared starting point of the ‘obesity epidemic’ is interpreted in different ways.

Such differences frequently seem to lead to misunderstanding and even conflict at institutional and/or personal levels. They are inseparable from wider social and political trends, and deeply entangled with issues of the power and status of different sciences. More easily overlooked is the extent to which we are all inescapably participant subjects as well as protagonists of public health research enterprises. This further problematises any easy distinction between lay, biomedical and social-scientific orientations.

Within academic commentary, these issues are frequently framed in terms of the respective theoretical merits of ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ approaches, or proposed reconciliations between the two. In contrast, ongoing entanglements and discriminations of ‘us’, ‘them’ and ‘we’ suggest a far messier, dynamic and literally informal picture. Key questions concern whose is the social science contribution within public health research, who or what is that contribution for, and how best to enact and communicate that contribution in the real world? Discussion of these questions tends to be reserved to ‘off-page’ and ‘off-stage’ settings (e.g. frustrations shared over coffee). A more explicit articulation involves rethinking how we might theoretically and practically work with multiple and fluctuating demands, aspirations and ways of seeing.

Beyond Them and Us aims to recover the notion of ‘enacting social science within public health’ as in itself a legitimate field of social enquiry and to begin to explore a range of creative and constructive restatements, responses and/or possible resolutions. The symposium is targeted especially at early career (doctoral and postdoctoral) social scientists working within public health who face issues and dilemmas similar to those described, although proposed contributions may come from those working in any setting and from any disciplinary background. Contributions focusing on specific empirical contexts (whether ‘successes’ or ‘failures’) and/ or taking a wider critical or reflective stance are equally welcome.

Submission Process: Abstracts of not more than 300 words should be e-mailed to by Friday 15 June 2012. When sending the abstract please state full title of proposed paper, author(s’) name(s), affiliation, and e-mail contact details. You will be informed by early July whether your paper has been selected for the symposium.

As a second stage of the process, authors of selected papers will be requested to provide a written version (at least in summary form) of their contribution by Monday 3 September 2012 at the latest so that this can be circulated to other participants prior to the symposium. The purpose of this is to encourage a fuller cross-fertilisation of ideas and to stimulate richer and more productive discussion on the day.

Other: Subject to the outcome of funding applications, it is possible a charge may need to be imposed for participation in the symposium (including for speakers selected via this CFP) in order to cover costs. However this will be no more than £40 (with a reduced rate of £20 for all students including PhDs).

The event is organised by Emily Taylor and Paul Stronge, Research Associates, based at the Department of Public Health and Primary Care, University of Cambridge.

All enquiries to please.
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