Proceedings of the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
Durban, South Africa, September 1997

Crash test dummies

Martin Terre Blanche & Johan Kruger

[email protected]

The first two South African qualitative methods conferences, "A spanner in the works of the factory of truth" (1995) and "The Body Politic" (1996), established the annual event as something more than purely a methodology conference. An eclectic blend of contributions from high profile international researchers and local students, academic papers and performance art, postmodern entertainment and serious political critique, the conferences tried to give substance to the notion that qualitative methods are not (just) about particular techniques, but also about enquiring into the politics of knowledge production more broadly.

Apart from social, political and status differentials among those attracted to the conferences there were also many other divisions, for example between those working from a phenomenological-interpretative versus a critical-discursive frame and those interested in methodological innovation versus theoretical critique. Thus the conferences, although providing a sense of community for qualitative researchers, have also increasingly become a setting where the value of one's intellectual currency becomes uncertain and where it is easy to feel out of place. Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, a growing theme at the conferences has been to explore the social construction of what is considered abnormal, marginal and deviant.

The theme of the third conference, "Touch me I'm sick" (1997), was intended to encourage just this: Further exploration of the territories of normality, pathology and exclusion. We were interested in how 'normal' and 'deviant' human subjectivities are constructed in fields such as medicine, psychology, education and the media and invited paper proposals in areas such as pornography/ antipornography, ultra-violence, cybersex, and queer theory. Interestingly the theme (which is from a song by a band called Mudhoney) seemed to give more offense than in previous years and we had to deal with quite a few irate e-mails from individuals who felt that by encouraging people to touch the diseased we may be endangering public health. In a metaphorical sense there may be some substance to their fears.

The conference, held at the University of South Africa's Durban regional centre on 8 and 9 September 1997, had to be partly organised by remote control from Johannesburg and Pretoria. As a result (and perhaps also because the theme was not universally popular), attendances were lower than at previous conferences. In addition, the venue was not particularly conducive to social mingling. Nevertheless, many highly interesting and provocative papers were presented (a selection of which are reproduced in these proceedings), and heated and informative discussions occurred. There were also some striking audiovisual and live performances, posters, and a small art exhibition.

Authors were invited to contribute papers to the proceedings either as formal academic articles or as informal works-in-progress, or as something in between, and there is therefore considerable stylistic variation among papers. In addition a few authors elected to include informal contextual comments with their papers. The intention with the proceedings is not only to serve as a partial record of the event, but also to encourage further dialogue. To this end we have wherever possible included authors' e-mail addresses or other contact details.

In terms of content, papers have been grouped into six sections, although many other readings are of course also possible. Section 1, Gender, sexuality and representation, deals with lesbianism, homosexuality and other marginalised forms of sexual expression, as well as with issues of gender, power and resistance. In a closely argued paper Fiona Scorgie explores the dilemmas raised for feminist theorists by the phenomenon of lesbian pornography, while Pravani Naidoo discusses historical shifts in the (self) representation of homosexual men - from pansies, to perverts, to macho-men. She also uses this material as a case study for examining the utility of the discourse analytic approach to what was once considered psychopathology. Extending the theme of resistance to established cultural orders, Tamara Shefer describes the many ways in which students at the University of the Western Cape resist rigid and restrictive categories of femininity and masculinity in a patriarchal society. Moving from 'real' to 'virtual' contexts, Andrew Thatcher and Andee Feldman present the results of a survey on cybersex. While the students in Shefer's paper struggle to establish more fluid identities within an overtly restrictive regime, Thatcher and Feldman show that even where traditional constraints on gender and sexual roles ostensibly no longer apply, interactional possibilities 'naturally' gravitate towards conservative stereotypes.

Section 2, Discourses of culture, contain two papers by Alain Tschudin and Sebastian Potter & Vaughan Dutton respectively. These papers are critical examinations of media