Paper presented at the 4th Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Histories of the present"
3 & 4 September 1998, Johannesburg, South Africa

Unconventional histories in the critical social sciences: the Fourth Annual South African Qualitative Methods Conference.

Derek Hook* and Martin Terre Blanche

Department of Psychology, University of the Witwatersrand, Private Bag 3, WITS 2050, [email protected]

This paper traces the objectives and pragmatics of the organization of the Fourth Annual South African Qualitative Methods Conference (SAQMC) 'Histories of the Present'. The ongoing series of SAQMCs is seen as a central component in bolstering South Africa's important position within the ranks of 'critical psychology'. Turning toward the philosophical and epistemological ethos of the event, the second half of the paper focuses more directly on the genealogical thematic of a 'history of the present'. The incentive to destabilize, relativize and disrupt the practices, discourses and subjectivities of the present is seen as a key tactic in critical social science work taking power-knowledge as its subject of analysis. Via an alternate reading of the value of 'history' and a proposed alliance between the knowledge-producing practices of the social sciences and the arts, the authors attempt to mobilize a number of methodological imperatives, namely an 'ethic' of alienation, a valuation of 'otherness' and the formation of counter-knowledges, as means of impelling a critical, politically-motivated qualitative social science practice.

"Question everything" (Marx, cited in Kamenka, 1982, p. 37).

"What's going on just now? What's happening to us? What is this world, this period, this precise moment in which we are living? (Foucault, 1982, p. 216).

"The genealogist is a diagnostician who concentrated on the relations of power, knowledge, and the body in modern society" (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982, p. 105).


Beginning in 1995 as a largely student run initiative with the objective of investigating (and problematizing) the politics of knowledge-production in the social sciences, and South African psychology in particular, (cf Terre Blanche, 1997; Terre Blanche & Kruger, 1998; Terre Blanche 1998), the Annual South African Qualitative Methods Conference (SAQMC) has grown into a far wider, international event. Critical questions pertaining to research, enquiry and issues of knowledge-production more broadly (in and out of the academy) continue to be crucial to the animus of the event.

* To whom all correspondence and enquiries regards past and future SAQMCs may be addressed.

The conference retains its ground-swell support in its founding discipline of psychology despite having evolved into a far more cross-disciplinary forum encompassing fields as diverse as oral history, sociology, comparative literature, education, philosophy, political science, the plastic and dramatic arts, cultural geography, sociology and architecture. In addition to having secured the support of the most prominent South African universities, the annual Qualitative Methods Conferences have been successful in attracting international delegates from as far afield as Australia, Belgium, France, Sweden, Germany, the USA, Canada and the UK.

The series of conferences has also resulted in a number of academic publications. Not only have the conferences been the basis for a special issue of the South African Journal of Psychology (1997, 27, (2)), and for half an issue of the German Journal Soziale Wirklichkeit (no 1, 1998), they have also been the motivation and substance for a forthcoming book: body Politics: Power Knowledge and the body in the Social Sciences (eds Bhavani, K. & Terre Blanche, M.) to be published by HOP Press. The 1998 conference, entitled 'Histories of the Present' was in addition the subject of considerable media interest, much of which stemmed from the participation of the two distinguished international personages the organizers secured as key-note speakers, world-famous French Artist and art-historian Orlan, and Cornell University Professor of English and author Mark Seltzer.

Further to the credit of the conference is the fact that it has been instrumental, over the last four years, in forging and strengthening a network of critical social science scholars working within South Africa. More than helping to establish and consolidate this informal network, the conference has also provided a 'site of exchange' where local academics have been afforded the opportunity of meeting, engaging with and even collaborating with esteemed foreign academics who are conducting research in similar areas (past guests Kum-Kum Bhavnani, Patricia Hill-Colins, Mark Seltzer and Orlan, and future guests, for the 1999 conference, Ian Parker, Erica Burman and Nikolas Rose are the most exceptional examples of such luminaries).

More than providing local academics with the opportunity to make valuable international contacts, the conference has also been important in drawing the attention of international academics to the current critical social science work occurring in South Africa. This cross-pollination has no doubt resulted in vitalizing critical research methodology in South Africa - the steady increase of textual and discursive analytic research work within the ambit of psychology is a good case in point.

The SAQMCs cannot of course take credit for all such cross-national and cross-disciplinary collaborations involving South Africa's critical social scientists. It has however played a fundamental role in disseminating and motivating such work and as such, in substantiating South Africa's forefront world position within the fledgling sub-discipline of 'critical psychology'. Indeed, next to the United Kingdom, South Africa boasts one of the world's strongest concentrations of scholars working within the broad rubric of this field. It is the consolidation and extension of South Africa's position as a world-leader in this new area of enquiry and criticism that provides the SAQMC with its raison d'etre and its deserving need for continued and increasing support.

Student Academics and the Avant-Garde of Qualitative Methodology.

Despite a strong focus on international participation and upon collaborative rapproachment between academics across national and disciplinary barriers, the SAQMCs also has pressing domestic goals. Foremost amongst these is to 'open up' the critical social sciences in South Africa, to provide an entry point for young and historically disadvantaged researchers to present, distribute and publish their work from the platform of their participation at an international conference. This concern with nurturing and developing young scholars and student academics was particularly the case with 'Histories of the Present', where every effort was made to integrate senior with more junior participants, to establish links between more established and up-and-coming researchers, to cultivate a climate of dialogue, discussion and debate.

This objective of providing 'spaces of exposure' extends also to new and multi-disciplinary research, to the influx of new theory, to methods and subjects typically marginalized within a more traditional practice of social science. As suggested above, perhaps the fundamental motivating factor in 'instituting' the SAQMC was to foreground the most recent and technically advanced local and overseas social science research work, to enable the dissemination, critique and expansion of such new modes of analysis.

This concern with technologies of analysis and critique is nor however purely formal. The abiding dedication of the SAQMC to progressive techniques and procedures of knowledge-generation

is not one of a naive fascination with the 'avant garde' of current qualitative methodologies. This attention to new methodology is geared primarily towards political utility rather than merely an enthusiasm for formal innovation. The cultivation of a kind of 'political consciousness' of the extraordinary power-relations and dynamics that characterize particularly South African contexts and histories is a defining feature of the SAQMC. It is this multifold and widening analysis of power-relations, the forcing of the ostensibly apolitical into the light of political critique and interrogation (most notably perhaps here the practices of psychology themselves), that has been one of its most vital aims. Indeed, the trajectory of the SAQMC is marked not only with the identification of new and less humanistically-orientated methods of research (discourse analysis, ideological critique, genealogy, geopolitics) but with equally new subjects of research (power, space, history, discourse) and with the prospects they hold for new forms of knowledge, truth and, ultimately, practice.

Given then that the conference has as a central objective an 'opportunity creation' initiative aiming to provide a platform both for junior and for marginalized research, the issue of dissemination becomes apparent. As important as conferences are as sites of exchange and interaction (factors indeed that should not be under-estimated), paper presentation and attendance is not the same, in terms of disseminatory and credential value, as is publication. Every academic knows this. The publication imperative has thus become increasingly important for the institution of the SAQMC, and whilst, as mentioned above, the organizers have done well in distributing and publishing conference material, collections of this sort remain vital to maintaining the stature and development of the conference. This present collection, whilst by no means exhaustive, and whilst noticeably diverse in style, content and disciplinary foundation, substantiates this goal, by providing a cross-section of the papers presented at 'histories of the present'.

Beyond attracting presenters and publishing the proceedings, a related goal of the conference organizers was to attract a large and young representative body of delegates to the event. A number of strategies were hence adopted as means of ensuring a strong student presence. The elitist trappings of academic conferences where only recognized scholars are invited to present were dispensed with. A prize was offered for the best student presentation and a large-scale publicity campaign was conducted at the host university (the University of the Witwatersrand) to attract student participation. Additionally student registration fees were largely subsidized or alternately determined according to a pay-what-you-can sliding scale. Ultimately two of the greatest successes of the conference were the large number of students (both graduates and under-graduates) who attended key conference sessions, and the number of student presentations which balanced those of more senior researchers by a ratio of almost 1:1. (Incidentally a 2:1 ratio of white to black presenters reflected a mark of progress for the conference, whilst admittedly still falling short of a the more representational balance that the 1999 SAQMC will aim to attain).

'Some Comfort Gained From the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything'.

The cross-disciplinary ethos of the SAQMC has proven to be extremely successful in involving both visual and performing artists. SAQMC's intellectual investment in cross-disciplinary work (across the humanities and arts) is based in an optimism regarding the potential for such collaborations to yield new forms of knowledge, which bring with them new possibilities for political action. Endeavours like genealogy (spanning the disciplines of history, philosophy and the social science disciplines, in Foucault's case (1977, 1980b)) and critical spatial politics or geopolitics (drawing both from geography and critical social science) are prime examples of this. These hybrid 'disciplines' bring to light kinds of understanding, expositions of power beyond the jurisdiction of insular disciplines, hence opening up prospective spaces of interrogation and resistance. The idea is that 'multi-disciplinarianism' of this nature can extend opportunities for critical enquiry, can make the terrains of foreign disciplines more approachable to those working outside of them, and richer to those working within them.

Perhaps where the SAQMC has in this respect been most successful is in promoting the productive interface of academic research and art-production. Previous conferences were fortunate enough to have hosted the prodigious talents of South African artists the likes of Penny Siopis, Moshekwa Langa, Hentie van der Merwe, Caitlin Thompson and Steven Cohen. 'Histories of the Present' was a stand-out success in this respect, entailing an exhibition of the same name as part of the core conference proceedings, which included (with thanks to the tireless efforts of curator Kathryn Smith), local and international exhibitors of the calibre of William Scarborough, Mark Haywood, Bradley Hammond, Esmarie Meyer, Derek Revello, Tony Scullion, Storm van Rensburg, Jeremy Wafer and Mark Hipper. Curated on a shoe-string budget and opening on the first night of the conference to a large audience, the exhibition garnered positive reviews across the media, including a front page spot in the September 13 edition of the Sunday Independent. Indeed, the Independent's Nina Johnson (1998) called the show 'one of the most impressive exhibitions of the year'.

More than related in a kind of decorative capacity, the role of art-making and performance within the SAQMC has been that of a central and vital means of enquiry, critical practice and indeed, knowledge-production. (See Louw's 'Constructing ground' for a discussion of the production of new and discursively-sensitive knowledges through artistic/design process).

The fact that practices of art-production and performance belong to different epistemological and ontological orders - as aesthetic endeavours - to those of conventional social science practices, means that they have been able to lend to the conference certain unique opportunities in terms of brokering oppositional 'counter-knowledges'. More plainly put, they offer novel and affective means of challenging status quo understandings and values. These properties of subversion and resistance proved integral to the conference's overall objective of interrogating the 'everyday knowledges of normality'. Both the centrality of the aesthetic practice to the SAQMC, and its prospects in terms of political resistance, were reflected in the choice of Orlan as one of the conference's keynote speakers.

Orlan's artistic project, the gradual transformation of her face and body through life-endangering bouts of cosmetic surgery, which are filmed and then broadcast around the world, (grizzly excerpts of which featured in her presentation), displaces a number of pressing issues concerning the female body and its relationship to desirability and malleability within the given patriarchal social milieu. Questions of the primacy of representation, of bodily essentialism were likewise brought to bear in a disturbing and visceral presentation which attracted in excess of 200 delegates. In many ways Orlan's 'carnal art' is successful in producing a kind of counter-knowledge by threatening the collapse of one of modernity's most cherished divisions: that between the pathological and the rational, the abnormal and the sane, the accepted and the transgressive. The division is of course, a mutually-exclusive one, one whose perpetuation is of massive importance to a human science like that of psychology. Indeed, an applied discipline like clinical psychology would, arguably, cease to function in the absence of so fundamental a distinction.

Long & Zietkiewicz pick up on the implications of exclusionary practices based upon just such a distinction in their paper 'Unsettling meanings of madness: constructions of South African insanity'. Posing the collapse of this distinction in a very different way, one of Tony Scullion's contributions to the conference exhibition, a canvas entitled 'Assessment' (1988), features the word 'freak' emblazoned graffiti-like across the picture-plane, behind the figure of a human grotesque looking outward at the viewer through a pair of binoculars. The tension of the work, is, as Atkinson has (1998) noted, that it remains unresolved within the context of the work as to whether the assessment is directed at the viewer of the picture, or at its grotesque subject.

Another performance which powerfully evoked issues of sexuality, deviance and transgression was that of Steven Cohen. Cohen, a participant of both 1997 and 1998 SAQMCs, and Vita Art Award winner in 1998 conducted his performance on the first night of the conference, at the opening of the conference exhibition.

Dressed in drag, but essentially naked, Cohen was caned across the buttocks by a co-performer in an apparent mime of sado-masochistic sexual practice. In a second piece, Cohen ejected viscous red dye from his mouth before douching the same blood-like substance over a kitsch nude of a young girl that he'd previously placed amongst the exhibition.

Although perhaps more spectacular in their shock-appeal, these two performances (Orlan's and Cohen's) called to mind the work of British Artist Damien Hirst. One of his most notorious pieces, namely 'Some comfort gained from the acceptance of the inherent lies in everything' (see Hirst, 1997) features two dead cows, which have been divided by vertical cross-sectional cuts into 12 separate segments, each floating upright in its own separate tank of formaldehyde. As an exhibit the 12 tanks are placed in a discontinuous but linear order such that the various cross-sectional segments of the two bodies are interchanged. Separated from one another equi-distantly, the tanks are arranged so that spectators may walk around and between the various segments of the carcasses and benefit from both external and internal anatomical vantages of the two animals.

The attraction of these works, and the power they exude from the perspective of the politically-motivated social science researcher, is that they are able to displace certain dominant values by exhibiting the facts hidden, secreted away by more acceptable practices. Each of the above examples, Orlan's cosmetic surgery, Cohen's sexual exhibitionism, Hirst's