Written by Professor Gareth Williams – Director of CISHeW
On 5th November 2013 Gabriel Scally posted a blog in the British Medical Journal. The subject of his blog was the recent address by Michael Marmot to the 141st meeting of the American Public Health Association, held in Boston.
“Those of us who have heard Sir Michael Marmot speak at conferences over the past years have come to know what to expect… His impeccably measured, intellectual, and analytical presentations have convinced world leaders and policy makers to take health equity seriously. We all expected more of the same. But this time what we got wasn’t the Michael Marmot we expected. There was an outpouring of passion, anger, and steely commitment that gripped and shook his enormous audience.”
I wasn’t in Boston to hear the speech, though I caught up with some of it on YouTube. Watching Michael Marmot and reading Gabriel Scally’s blog raised a number of questions in my mind: What does the analytical person do with all that passionate concern? What does the angry person make of all that measurement? And what is to be done when all those policy makers who have been persuaded to take health equity seriously don’t actually do anything about it? How do we prevent our angry outpourings at their hypocrisy and inaction evaporating and floating away on the breeze?
There must be – indeed there are – ways of thinking, writing, speaking and acting that mark out different landscapes between measured presentations of the scientific evidence and emotional expressions of anger or concern. Think of history, anthropology and philosophy; think of fiction, music, poetry and theatre: each offers ways of knowing – and ways of disturbing our everyday ways of knowing – which develop in us more powerful interpretations of the world as it is. They also, in many cases, help us to imagine the future differently, opening up new visions of society, counter-representations and possibilities for social action.
The recently launched Cardiff Institute of Society, Health and Wellbeing (CISHeW – say it fast and it sounds like a sneeze) is being developed in order to open up the large space in which analysis and concern can work side by side, as forms of praxis or human solidarity and community connectedness; producing not merely evidence for policy or anger at policy-makers but forms of interpretation and action co-produced with different actors and stakeholders.
Building upon a history of methodologically innovative interdisciplinary research in Cardiff’s School of Social Sciences, we are developing adventurous methods for engagement and partnership between the social sciences, public health, arts, humanities and community action. And we will be working directly with civil society groups and community members, service providers, policy makers and artists of different kinds to generate knowledge for action to improve health and wellbeing.
You could say that our aim is to engage in forms of research which embody what the great American sociologist, C. Wright Mills, writing just after the end of the Second World War, referred to as ‘sociological poetry’ , the title of a short chapter in John H Summers’ (2008) selection of Mills’ writings, The Politics of Truth. In the language of the time he defined this as: ‘…a style of experience and expression that reports social facts and at the same time reveals their human meanings’, an idea that later evolved into what he famously referred to as the ‘sociological imagination’; not a specific discipline, but a form of thinking which encompasses ‘… the personal troubles of milieu and the public issues of social structure’.
We hear a lot about the need for evidence. But imagination of this kind is equally important. It is a necessary part of what Erik Olin Wright referred to in his 2011 Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association as ‘…a normatively grounded sociology of the possible, not just the actual’. We hope that CISHeW will be able to make a contribution to this work.