Welcome to Fieldnotes

19 Sep 2018 - 10:30
Goedgedacht - SASH Writing Retreat


The Fieldnotes Editorial Team - Christopher J Colvin, Alison Swartz, Zara Trafford, Natasha Kannemeyer, Myrna van Pinxteren

Welcome to Fieldnotes!

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Fieldnotes, our new platform for promoting the role of critical health social science research in the field of public health. Fieldnotes is based in the Division of Social and Behavioural Sciences (DSBS) in the School of Public Health and Family Medicine at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The idea for developing a platform like Fieldnotes emerged out of conversations in our Division over the last few years about who we are, how we can work more effectively with each other, and how we might tell others about the work we are doing in critical health social science research. We hope that it will become a trusted resource for anyone interested in learning about the research, staff and students connected to DSBS.

We are a relatively new Division in the School, created in 2013 with only a couple of staff and a few postgraduate students. Since then, we have grown rapidly, and are fortunate to have 10 staff members, more than 40 postgraduate students, multiple courses and training fellowships, and several major research projects. We have also been lucky enough to develop an extensive network of collaborators within South Africa, the African continent and abroad. With all of these new people and projects, we felt that we could all benefit from having an online platform to share our thoughts and work with each other, as well as a broader audience. We realised that sometimes even students or staff who share the same office don’t always know what each other are doing. This is even more true when we ask if people in the School, Faculty, University or beyond know what we do. We hope that Fieldnotes will offer those outside of the Division the opportunity to learn more about our work, but will also help us to understand ourselves better and deepen the engagement within our own members. 

Part of getting the word out about our work involves knowing how to communicate what we do effectively to those who are not experts in a specific topic or discipline.  We have been excited in recent years to see sites like TheConversation.com and Aeon.co that have tried to bring academic research and intellectual debates to a wider audience. This work is important, but it is also difficult, and academics are generally not taught how to write about their ideas in this way. We hope that Fieldnotes will provide an opportunity not only for a broader audience to engage with issues and debates in the health social sciences but also for our students and staff to develop capacity in this kind of knowledge translation. 

Finally, we have discovered that with rapid growth and the excitement of new people, projects and ideas, it is not always clear to everyone what ideas, perspectives and values might hold us together as a unit. From the Division’s start a few years ago, we have tried to articulate and develop a unique focus for the Division’s teaching and research. Many of our staff and students come from critical social science traditions but we all now work in an applied public health context.  It is this intersection—between critical social theory and applied public health practice—that we in the Division are committed to exploring. The relationships between critical perspectives and practical application are not always comfortable, but there are real opportunities and advantages to working at this meeting point. Because our staff and students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, we wanted to provide a platform for articulating and refining exactly what it is we might mean by “the critical” and “the applied”. We hope that Fieldnotes will serve as a platform for the Division to work out in more detail what its members think critical health social science work within a public health context should look like.   

What Kinds of Contributions Will Fieldnotes Publish?

As a Division specialising in the social and behavioural sciences in health, DSBS is anchored in the academic project of teaching and research. Many of our contributions will thus come out of the excellent work being done by our staff, students and the many research collaborators with whom we work. From our base in a school of public health, however, we are also lucky to work with a much wider set of stakeholders, including healthcare practitioners and policymakers, community-based organisations and NGOs, performing artists and health activists. We see Fieldnotes as a platform for bringing these various players and perspectives together and will include articles from all of these different partners. 

In terms of the style of contributions in Fieldnotes, we are looking for pieces that are clear, critical and creative. Clear and concise writing is vital for a project like this that tries to translate complex ideas and arcane disciplinary debates for as broad an audience as possible. Clarity is not the same as ‘dumbing down’ difficult material. We have found over and over that if you can’t express your idea in simple, straightforward language, you probably don’t really understand what you are trying to say. We are aiming for relatively short (1000-2000 word) articles that are written as clearly as possible and effectively communicate one or two big ideas.

We are also interested in writing that takes a critical perspective. The word ‘critical’ can mean several different things. For us, being critical in public health means challenging what appears self-evident or natural, and asking what kinds of less visible dynamics might be at play, ‘under the surface’, when we are trying to understand why the health of a population looks the way it does. Some may be familiar with critical social and behavioural theories like Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, and critical race theory--approaches that reveal the relationships of power and oppression behind common sense notions of what is normal and natural. We are interested in pieces that consider the role of these broader social, economic, cultural and political forces in producing the public’s health. But we are also interested in critical self-reflections and in pieces that challenge the engrained habits and assumptions of our research methodologies, our teaching practices and our thinking about the ethical and the political. 

Finally, we are keen to present articles that are creative in terms of the ideas presented, the methods used and/or the ways these ideas are expressed. We hope that they will work—in small or big ways—towards creating something new. We believe that the kind of deeply creative thinking and doing needed to have an impact in public health has to be based on a foundation of clear and critical thinking. But clarity and a critical sensibility are not enough. At its best, our work should contribute to bringing something new, enlightening and productive into the world. This kind of creative work is hard and slow work but it is the only kind of work that matters.

Our First Set of Contributions and Articles to Come

To launch Fieldnotes, we have initially brought together 4 pieces that we hope demonstrate our investment in clear, critical and creative thinking, and highlight some of the kinds of people and projects at work in the Division. The first contribution is from Lesley Gittings, a PhD student in the Division and a South African Social Science and HIV (SASH) Fellow, who has been working in the Eastern Cape for the last two years trying to better understand the experiences of adolescent boys living with HIV. She uses both her own experiences as a healer in training, and the experiences of her research participants in the Eastern Cape to challenge conventional ideas about the divisions between biomedical and traditional health practices. Her piece is followed by a contribution from another SASH Fellow, Tebogo Mokganyetji, who offers a more personal reflection on her experiences as a PhD student at UCT. She reflects on the complicated relationship she has to the notion that she is ‘privileged’ to be a black female PhD candidate at the university and describes the many kinds of draining emotional labour that women like her are expected to perform at institutions that are wrestling with how to address historical legacies and ongoing structures of oppression.  

The third article is from Lianne Cremers, Alison Swartz and Chris Colvin. With the support of Chris and Alison, Lianne conducted 8 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Town 2, Khayelitsha on the experiences of ordinary people who were being treated for MDR-TB. Her research describes several ways individuals and communities demonstrated resilience in coping with life with TB (even when some of these strategies interfered with their TB treatment).  She also shot video footage during her research and has recently produced a full-length documentary, as well as an academic journal article that includes embedded video clips. Finally, our last piece emerges from a conversation between two DSBS staff members, Zara Trafford and Mandla Majola, about the Movement for Change and Social Justice (MCSJ). Mandla is a lifelong activist and Gugulethu resident, former TAC organizer, current member of the Division’s iALARM research project, and co-founder of MCSJ. In this piece, he describes the birth of MCSJ as a community-university partnership, its key objectives and early successes, and some of its plans for the future. MCSJ represents the kind of creative fusion of teaching, research and social responsiveness that we hope Fieldnotes will also be able to achieve.  

Going forward, instead of releasing batches of contributions in ‘issue’ form, we will be releasing one article every other week or so. We hope this will be a manageable load (on top of all the other reading we are supposed to be doing!) and will keep readers coming back on a regular basis. Please check back frequently to see what has been added.  You can also sign up for our mailing list to keep informed about new updates.

Finally, we would welcome any ideas you have about how to improve Fieldnotes. This is new and evolving venture for us and any ideas, critiques, or contributions you might have would be very welcome.  

Queries can be sent to Natasha Kannemeyer: natasha.kannemeyer@uct.ac.za