Book review: Laura Ellingson (2017). Embodiment in qualitative research. Routledge.

Book review by Craig Owen

Ellingson photo

In this text, Laura Ellingson provides a theoretical approach, a methodological philosophy, and a range of practical tips and examples for how to attend to the meaningful presence of your own and your research participants’ bodies throughout all stages of the research process.

Laura starts by taking a poststructuralist approach to theorising embodiment. She calls on us to recognise how the body is always in a process of becoming, a liminal state that is shifting and never fixed or finalised. The goal of research on embodiment is thus to shine a light on this dynamic process, to capture snapshots of these transitions, changes and movements of the body over time.

To achieve this goal, Laura sketches out the benefits of a flexible and inclusive methodology, one that is open to embracing a wide range of methods and theories, and one not afraid of crossing paradigmatic, methodological and disciplinary boundaries. Adopting this approach allows us to openly acknowledge how qualitative research, just like everyday life, is a messy business. By embracing the mess, that is, being open to mistakes, mis-directions, unexpected opportunities and unanticipated tangents in research practice, we are better placed to engage with the multiple, slippery and fuzzy realities of embodied life. For Laura, such an approach is not haphazard, nor lacking in rigor, but rather reflects “a creative, generative commitment to embodied pragmatism” (p.192).

To help bring the body into our research in a more deliberate and creative manner, Laura also provides a range of practical guidelines and flexible starting points for experimentation. She encourages us to actively engage with sensuousness, to (re)learn our own senses, carefully attending to how, through our engagements in new research contexts and interactions, we and others learn new skills of how to see, taste, feel and hear in different ways.

Of course, reflexivity is crucial here. Laura suggests that we can reflect on the specific parts of our body-self that are relevant in our research, to consider what our body has learned, how our senses have changed over course of the fieldwork, and how we come to recognise discourses circulating through our body and those of our participants.

In the course of planning and conducting interviews, focus groups, or any other form of communicative interaction, Laura suggests planning questions that explicitly encourage participants to reflect on touch, taste, smell, texture, temperature and movement. When conducting ethnographic fieldwork, she advises us to spend time focusing on and describing one specific sense. It is also essential for us to enhance our note-taking practice; getting in the habit of making notes about a range of sensations and emotions during important moments of understanding and connection. By jotting down more visceral, messy and sensorially rich notes, this will hopefully help spark our imagination and reflections when we return to (re)analyse the data at a later date.

To succinctly illustrate the benefits of this approach, at the beginning of each chapter, Laura provides eloquent examples where she creatively writes her own and others’ bodies into her research. Reading these descriptively rich and flowing sections of prose, I felt like I was getting to know Laura, her passion for research, her attention to specific details in the field, her quirky way of reflecting on her own disability, and her strange hankering for sugar-free fizzy pop. If only I could write in such an evocative and engaging way. As an early career researcher, I’m still struggling to get to grips with what I see as the staid academic style. But this embodied style is so much more gripping and reader friendly.

Ultimately, reading this text has helped me recognise that I need to experiment with my research practice and writing style, specifically, enriching my vocabulary, getting in the habit of describing single events in more holistic sensory ways, and experimenting with more imaginative, figurative and poetic language. No doubt, this will not be an easy task. But, if we take Laura’s advice that our progress will be as much a result of our mistakes and accidents as our plans and successes, we need only try.

Career File: Rado Masaryk

Dr Rado Masaryk is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Applied Psychology, Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences, Comenius University in Bratislava. He is also hosting the next 2019 ISCHP conference in Bratislava and our new conference chair. We are delighted to feature his career file.


Could you say a bit about your career trajectory so far?

One year after finishing my Masters in psychology I found out about a PhD position opening at the Faculty of Education which is a school that trains future teachers. I was sceptical at first. I had never thought of myself as an academic type. But I applied anyway, and got accepted, and found myself in a rather bizarre institution. The school was heavily underfunded, most of the students had no intention of ever going into teaching, there was no tradition of doing real research, many of my colleagues were severely burned out and they found no joy in their teaching or research. I nevertheless hung around until I got my doctorate. And then surprisingly I hung around for several additional years, because I felt that working with future teachers was the most important job in the world. However, I got to feeling a bit stagnant as far as my academic career went. So after 9 years it was time to move on. The Head of the Institute of Experimental Psychology at the Slovak Academy of Sciences offered me a job and a chance to manage a group of inspiring young researchers. I started to publish internationally (it was about time!). Now I work at the Comenius University’s Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences which is a small institution and at the same time a very dedicated group of researchers. We are the youngest and the most radical part of the Comenius University, and I enjoy working for this progressive faculty.

How did you get to be where you are today?

By being detail-focused and responsible when it comes to important things. By not taking personally those things that I cannot change or that do not actually matter that much. And by forgiving myself for not being always wise enough to know the difference.

When did you decide to be an academic? What was it that prompted this decision?

There were these moments, for instance when sitting around a table as grad students brainstorming with some of our professors, and they genuinely loved some of our research design ideas. When I saw my first paper getting published. When someone I admired came to me after my conference talk and gave me positive feedback. When I realized how deeply I can affect some of my students’ lives. Academia can be highly addictive.

What are the biggest challenges/ barriers you have faced so far in doing your work?

As a person from a post-communist country I had to work very hard to achieve things that would have been much easier if I had done my PhD training in an established institution in Western Europe or the US: things like getting to conferences, securing access to books and journals, meeting experts, or publishing in the English language are just some of the things that I will never take for granted. I was 38 when I first flew to an international conference knowing my flight ticket would be reimbursed by my employer. Now I do everything in my power to make sure the current generation of PhD candidates here can have better conditions to develop their academic careers than I did.

How did you get involved in ISCHP and how has the experiences been for you?

This could be traced to the time when Wendy, Chris and Kerry came to Bratislava; they introduced me to ISCHP and I signed up for the mailing list. Then I attended the 2017 conference in Loughborough. However, my first encounter with critical psychology was a brilliant chapter written by Wendy and Rex Stainton Rogers for a local Social Psychology textbook which at the time was recommended reading to prepare for my social psychology qualifying examination. This chapter was very different from the rest of the book – refreshing, stimulating and thought-provoking.

What are you most looking forward to about hosting ISCHP’s 2019 conference in Bratislava?

I look forward to introducing the newcomers to my hometown. For those who have already been here before, I look forward to getting them re-acquainted with this vibrant city that keeps changing  and developing very rapidly. I hope to create an unforgettable experience, and I hope to be hearing “Hey, remember that one time in Bratislava?!” whenever ISCHP people get together in the future. But one thing I am looking forward to the most is the idea of doing a warm-up before the conference at Slovakia´s best summer music festival. We may even succeed in incorporating a discussion on critical health psychology into the festival program. I love conferences and I love festivals, and the idea of combining the two sounds very exciting to me.

What makes you critical of mainstream psychology worldwide?

As early as in my undergraduate years I was exposed to amazing professors such as Jana Plichtová, Viera Bačová or Gabriel Bianchi who were among the first researchers in Slovakia who introduced us to qualitative methodology and showed us how the essentialist approach to doing psychological research can sometimes completely miss the mark. All three of them had an extensive background in rigorous experimental research so their criticism of the mainstream methodology was very credible and authentic.

Would you recommend any books or papers for those interested in critical psychology, and critical approaches to health?

“Health and Illness” by Claudine Herzlich. “Explaining Health and Illness: An Exploration of Diversity” by Wendy Stainton Rogers. “Representations of Health, Illness and Handicap” by Ivana Marková and Robert Farr. And “Madness and Social Representations: Living with the Mad in One French Community” by Denise Jodelet. This latter book, a fascinating account of how representations of an illness can impact ways how people with a certain diagnosis are treated by the other, inspired my own work on how people understand erectile dysfunction.

What are you currently working on (research or books)?

In one project we seek to persuade secondary school students to think about their future studies much earlier, not just when it is time to fill out their college application. Another project is focused on discerning credible news stories by young people. We also submitted a grant proposal to do a project on social representations of neurodegenerative diseases. And I am doing a small pet project with a grad student where we try to see how the taste of wine is influenced by the information about its price. This is one of the perks of academic life: wine sampling can be passed off as serious work!

And lastly, making reference to critical health psychology research and theory contrast and compare the following: dogs and cats.

Someone once said that the dog mentality is “The human gives me food therefore the human is God”, while cats tend to think “The human gives me food therefore I am God”. This shows that for critical psychology it is not only important to examine the existing distribution of power, but also to reflect on the privileges within.