Name: Robin Kearns
Current institution: University of Auckland
Research topics of interest: Place attachment; Health care spaces; Housing and home; Aging in place; Islands, coasts and bluespaces; Music, place & wellbeing.
Tell us about your journey working in the field of geographies of health and wellbeing
Looking back, I would describe my journey to becoming a health/wellbeing geographer as somewhat serendipitous. To begin way back, I was quite bored with high school geography and failed the subject spectacularly in my final year. An early indicator of a lifetime pattern: if I’m not enthusiastic about something, I rapidly lose interest! After high school, I went from New Zealand to the United States for a year in 1977 as a Rotary Exchange Student. I lived in a small town in Mississippi, the poorest state in the Union and travelled to or through 36 other states. That year was an immersion into wellbeing geography without the label.
I returned and enrolled in a BA at the University of Auckland, intending to major in psychology but added two geography courses as an afterthought. Another serendipitous moment. When I achieved A grades in geography and Cs in psychology, operant conditioning prevailed. I continued in geography, completing an MA degree with a thesis on the politics of land use change from dairying to horticulture in a small rural community. It taught me the power of case studies, the value of interviewing and the joy of fieldwork. My thesis supervisor, Warren Moran, encouraged me to consider a PhD and pointed to Canada.
The next serendipitous moment was when I was completing forms to apply for a Commonwealth Scholarship. They asked me to rank in order of preference six Canadian universities. A newish appointee in the Geography Department at the time was Brent Hall, a kiwi who had studied in Canada so I asked him what places I should list. He said McMaster. What about the other five, I asked? He said don’t bother listing any, McMaster was the place to go. I duly sent in the application a little half-heartedly with only one university listed. I can only think they assessed me as being very sure of my intentions so made the award. That wasn’t the case; I needed to quickly research McMaster and Hamilton Ontario and arrived a little dazed; the strengths of Geography at McMaster the at the time were spatial analysis and Marxist political economy. I found it a struggle to find my feet, but a niche appeared with Martin Taylor and Michael Dear. They had conducted projects on mental health issues, but largely from service location and community perspectives. In that era of major psychiatric hospital closures, Martin suggested turning things round and considering the ex-patient’s perspective. At the time, the ‘qualitative turn’ was barely on the horizon and precedents were few. With a passion to get ‘up close and personal’ I hung out as a volunteer at a mental health drop-in centre but didn’t have the tools or sense of legitimacy to incorporate the sensory and emotional fullness of that experience into my thesis, instead analysing interview and rating scale responses. Applying statistics like Mann-Whitney U to how people felt about their life on the streets of Hamilton seems a little odd looking back!
In 1986, the second iteration of the International Medical Geography Symposium (IMGS) was at Rutgers University and attending exposed me to a sense of community that I only diffusely felt going to medical geography sessions at AAG meetings. ‘Extra-curricular’ activities like a walk over Brooklyn Bridge and a Europe vs North America soccer game indicated a camaraderie I could feel part of despite only relating to some of what was discussed in sessions. To me, most was all a bit technical, quantitative and medical, and far from the essence of place and health/wellbeing that appealed to my more arts and humanities disposition.
Hence, on return to a postdoc position in Auckland, I prepared a paper for my first New Zealand geography conference proposing a reformed medical geography, drawing on examples of qualitative work I’d been involved in on my return to home soil. In yet another serendipitous moment, I withdrew the paper from consideration for the conference proceedings having heard they sometimes took well over a year to be published. Instead, somewhat impulsively, I sent the paper to The Professional Geographer. Responses after it the paper was published were rather vehement. However, I was ultimately grateful for them, as the resulting ‘debate’ seemed to offer a permission to others to embrace a wider diversity of topics, views of health and methodological perspectives.
In the three-plus decades since returning to NZ, I have enjoyed collaboration with many great health geographers: Wil Gesler, Alun Joseph, Graham Moon, Karen Witten, Isabel Dyck, Christine Milligan, Gavin Andrews, Ronan Foley as well as former grad students including Damian Collins and Christina Ergler. The key to these collaborations has been the enjoyment of working together. As Brendan Gleeson once wisely quipped, unless you can enjoy sitting down and sharing a beer at the end of the day with a collaborator, it’s not worth bothering with the collaboration. My partner Pat has also been a strong influence and her medical work was the excuse to get to places like Labrador and then spend time in the Hokianga region of New Zealand after completing my PhD. Her commitment to equity and Maori health has been inspiring as has been her journey through family medicine, palliative care and public health.
What has been most fascinating, surprising or rewarding in the course of this journey?
First, the rewarding: the wonderful and ever-widening circle of colleagues within the field who have appeared and largely stayed part of my world over the years; both close to home as well as widely dispersed connections kept fresh through reconnection at two-yearly IMGS meetings.
Second, the fascinating: the glorious malleability of what constitutes health and wellbeing. It feels at times like an ever-expanding universe of understandings, enriched in recent times by embrace of indigenous worldviews. It’s been personally rewarding that my meandering interests have found a home within the field. I have found a continual sense surprise at what papers are presented at IMGS meetings or come to my editor’s platform for Health & Place. Once, as a Masters student, I recall a peer being traumatised at a thesis proposal presentation by a senior geographer posing the challenge ‘Tell me how this is geography?’ To me, we are the better as health and wellbeing geographers for not having a firm grip on orthodoxy and disciplinary boundaries.
Third, the surprise: with the qualitative turn, the range of evidence for interpreting the experience of place and health/wellbeing has blossomed into a spectacularly creative and sensory diversity. When completing my PhD in the late 80s, I wouldn’t have imagined a time when asking participants to draw what they feel about a health care place would be legitimate, nor would I have anticipated being able to include poetry drafted while I was in hospital in a commentary I published in a high-impact journal. We live in times in which we need to be surprised by new and creative ways to convey and interpret the meanings of health and wellbeing.
Have you experienced any ethical, practical or research related challenges along the way?
Many! Ethical challenges are now, at least in our institutional context, well considered by a review committee prior to fieldwork. However, especially in the case of graduate student projects, over-attention to detail over principles can lead to frustrating delays. Looking back, there are cases where, had there been an ethics committee in place, I would not have been able to proceed. A case in point is my fieldwork in the Hokianga district observing the dynamics of waiting rooms in the late 1980s. I’ve been told many times since that such ‘passive surveillance’ would not be approved today, yet the published analysis let to the community having some needed leverage to contest restructuring decisions threatening their health service!
A second and practical challenge that has come with seniority is simply having less time for fieldwork and necessarily relying on graduate students and research assistants to undertake interviews etc. Being at arms-length from the aspects of the human experience of health and wellbeing under consideration is not optimal, so I find a good a compromise is to ensure at least some field involvement near the outset of a project so that subsequently I can clearly envisage the site and ‘hear’ the transcribed narratives.
What advice would you give to an aspiring health or wellbeing geographer?
One of my friends and mentors when discerning the best path to take once said: ‘bite off more than you can chew, then chew like hell’. Perhaps not the best advice to guide one’s entire career, but in earlier years that advice was sound. A willingness to give things a go and say yes rather than maybe to opportunities served me well. Networks developed, collaborations emerged, coauthorships unfolded. So, my first advice would be don’t hesitate to step outside your comfort zone – in terms of the people you engage with or the opportunities you agree to. Enthusiasm opens doors, but it needs to be genuine.
My second bit of advice is don’t overlook the local, the familiar and the personal as your foundational ‘laboratory’ for understanding health and wellbeing. To me, my most satisfying publications have invariably started with an idea sourced in my own everyday experience. Hence, for instance, investigations of the Starship children’s hospital in Auckland began when my son was a pre-schooler and hospitalised with asthma. I became curious: what makes a children’s hospital distinctive? Then when our children were of school-age, I was bothered by why so many parents drove their children to school, so I began work developing and assessing the merits of walking school buses. More recently, I heard a song by PJ Harvey called ‘Community of Hope’ after reading Gavin Andrews’ exhortation in Progress in Human Geography that health geographers think more about hope. That idea became a book chapter with Gavin and Jim Dunn, whose knowledge of US housing redevelopments added interpretation of the song. So, being part of big projects is great, but as E.F. Schumacher famously said ‘small is beautiful’ too.
My third bit of advice is co-author. This practice is anathema to my colleagues in the humanities for whom sole-authorship is the norm. But we in health geography have enough influence of the science tradition to have a strong endorsement of co-authorship. Make the most of it and take every opportunity! As my friend and co-author Alun Joseph often joked, I’d often been shamelessly ‘writing-around’. But, for me at least, if I grind to a halt on a paper sending the draft on to a co-author is a great way to keep it moving towards completion. It is certainly good to achieve a few sole authored publications to clearly place your name on some key ideas. But co-authoring with a diversity of colleagues is a win/win: it shares the effort of completing publications as well as fosters new conversations and creative outputs.
Further background and contact: