Resistance and Renewal at the 30th Anniversary International Society for Theoretical Psychology Conference

In 2014 we ran our conference funding for Early Career Researchers scheme for the first time. In this series of posts, some of the winners report from the conferences they attended with our support.

By Hannah Botsis

The International Society for Theoretical Psychology (ISTP) held its 16th biennial conference at the end of June 2015 in Coventry, United Kingdom. The International Society for Theoretical Psychology (ISTP) is an international community concerned with theoretical, meta-theoretical and philosophical discussions in psychology. The Society was founded in the early 1980s, and through the conference and its associated journal, Theory & Psychology, it has promoted interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary dialogue on psychological questions.

This year’s conference was the anniversary of the first ISTP conference, which was held in Plymouth, United Kingdom, in 1985. Accordingly, the theme of Resistance and Renewal was chosen to engage with both the history of the Society and of theoretical psychology more generally and ask what this meant for the future of theoretically orientated psychology. It was clear that social and political changes globally over the past 30 years have required dynamic responses from theoretical psychology where the “subject” (both as domain and individual) of psychology has shifted. Thus, the theme of “resistance and renewal” aimed to “engage with how psychology might interrogate more political issues more critically using a theoretical paradigm”.

One of the opening plenary sessions entitled, “Whither Theoretical Psychology: Looking Back and to the Future”, comprised four established scholars variously involved in the founding and organisation of ISTP reflecting on their personal academic journeys in relation to bigger disciplinary shifts. As a PhD student from the “global south” it was both interesting and encouraging to listen to “testimonials” from these scholars on how they have negotiated space in the academy to do the kind of theoretical psychological work that is not always centred in the mainstream, which is often focused on psychology as an applied profession. Furthermore, their openness to new forms theory needed to explain new psychosocial formations given the asymmetries of globalization and knowledge production was commendable. This being said, the absence of conference delegates from Africa, India and Asia was noticeable. Even in spaces concerned with a theme like “Resistance and Renewal” the geographies of knowledge production and networking should not be glossed over. I hope that a conference of this nature will continue to grow in diversity. Nevertheless, the conference theme served as productive meeting point for the work of older more established scholars, and younger emerging scholars, and was taken up in many of the symposia and presentations.

Erica Burman’s keynote address entitled, “Fanon, Foucault, Feminisms: Psycho-education, theoretical psychology and political change” set the tone for the conference where political relevance was demonstrated to be just as important as theoretical rigour. Her paper addressed the conceptualisation of “resistance and renewal” by juxtaposing the theoretical resources offered to us by Fanon, Foucault and Feminism and drawing out their shared methodological assumptions. Her presentation emphasised the fact that Fanon’s psycho-affective analysis was “intrapersonal, interpersonal and socio-political”. As I am from an inter-disciplinary background, spanning politics, education and psychology, her paper encouraged me in seeing how my own work on language and identity in higher education in South Africa, had the potential to engage with more theoretical debates in psychology about the nature of the subject, the process of subjectification and attend to socio-politcal issues.

My paper, entitled “English mind/African body: dualism in the subject positioning of South African students in relation to their languages” formed part of the “subjects and subjectivation” stream. In my presentation I was concerned with demonstrating that while Cartesian mind/body dualism, in post-modern and post-structural theory, has been replaced by a notion of the subject as embodied and located, racial ideologies that draw on the mind/body split still have impulses in our present. In the narratives of students at a South African university it was found that English, seen as a corollary of whiteness, was associated with mind, rationality and a disembodied universal humanity. On the other hand, African languages, seen as an instantiation of blackness, were associated with the fixedness of a marked body and the particularity of place. There was a reproduction of the colonial trope of blackness being associated with the body and whiteness with the mind in the talk of the participants. African languages were constructed as not being able to confer the universal subjectivity that English seemed to offer. English represented the language of their education, thought and upward mobility, while African languages were referred to as languages of the heart, of culture, or something that marked their bodies.

I argued that what was problematic about these racialised tropes was the fact that the discursive positioning of African languages as representing emotional closeness, or authentication of one’s blackness, but being of little utility in the modern world, re-inscribed the dominance of whiteness through English. While new identity formations are occurring in South African higher education, that jettison old ideological constraints, there are many discursive continuities that leave the binary of English mind/African body intact. The audience provided instructive feedback on this work, which is a part of my on-going PhD project. They asked difficult questions about how language was reified in the narratives of the participants and what this might mean for political questions of identity and language in education. Colleagues from South and North America spoke about parallels in their contexts, where language is used in projects of racialization and ethnicisation, often under the guise of a liberal multiculturalism, while leaving the structural barriers around language and education in place.

I would like to thank The Sociological Review for making my attendance at this conference possible and supporting early career researchers. Initiatives such as the Early Career Researcher’s Fund are much appreciated, and completely necessary. Coventry is a long way from Johannesburg, and without their help I would not have been able to attend. It was a good introduction to international conference experience, and it was challenging but also encouraging that empirical work from the global south can engage in and contribute to theoretical psychology, which has previously been the domain of established western scholars.

Originally posted 2nd November 2015.

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