Image courtesy of Hester Parr.
As part of our celebration of this year’s medals and awards recipients, we caught up with Professor Chris Philo, recipient of the Victoria Medal for his contribution to research in health, social and cultural geographies, to discuss his greatest achievement, advances in his field and his advice for those wanting to go into research in this area.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement to date?
Academically, it would be the very substantial body of primary research comprising my 2004 monograph The Space Reserved for Insanity. On the one hand, this is a comprehensive ‘spatial history’ of institutions and other sites for the reception, restraint, shelter, care and (sometimes) cure of people with mental health problems (the ‘mad’, ‘lunatic’ or ‘insane’ of older terminologies), from the medieval period to the 1860s. And on the other, a sustained critical dialogue between that history and the claims (historical, philosophical, ethical, poetic) of Michel Foucault in his epic treatise on Madness and Civilization. I would also point to my ongoing geographical readings of Foucault’s ideas and insights from across the span of his whole written corpus, including the lectures series, all of which have continually informed and refreshed my own inquiries into health, social and cultural geographies.
Where did your interest in health, social and cultural geographies come from?
I had a year off between school and university when I worked as a Community Service Volunteer in Brixton, London, which marked a massive change from my comfortable ‘Home Counties’ experience as a child and teenager. I encountered the crackling diversity of Brixton’s social and cultural geographies – the year before the so-called ‘Brixton riots’ – seeing both the vibrancy and the inequalities of such an inner-city neighbourhood. My volunteer work also took me into an extraordinary variety of settings where poor health, illness and impairment were commonplace, notably a mental health day centre where I first met people with serious and enduring mental health problems. Itself a microcosm of the area’s composition and difficulties, it opened my eyes to how a health space was striated by complex socio-cultural dynamics, and how it could be simultaneously a venue of inclusions (and compassion) and exclusions (of the otherwise seemingly ‘unwanted’). This experience indeed ignited my prime geographical interests.
Why is this field so important?
For me, this field, where the geographical (and its histories) soaks into matters of health, society and culture, offers invaluable lenses on the character of what it is to be ‘human’, notably on the limits demarcating what is often all-too-easily taken as the ‘properly/fully’ human from the ‘improperly/less than’ human. I situate this understanding within the compelling vision from the 1880s of Prince Peter Kropotkin, the anarchist geographer, about how geography can be mobilised to oppose the travesties of prejudice, discrimination, class conceit and national jealousy.
What advances in this subdiscipline do you think will be made in the future?
Health, social and cultural geographies are of course themselves all recognisable subdisciplines, with their own tangled genealogies and distinctive contributions to wider knowledge-making. Maybe, though, the key advances to be made here will lie at the fractious – always placed – intersections where health, society and culture gather together. For me, the lesson to be learned over and over again, inspired by what geography constantly teaches us, is that there is no singular pattern for how the health-social-cultural nexus appears in the world, and that there are many possible patterns for how that nexus might be made and remade to ensure maximal flourishing and dignity for all forms of life (human and otherwise).
What advice would you give to someone wanting to go into a career in this field?
There are pressures and tribulations aplenty in undertaking an academic career, but it still remains a privileged space for independent thought, creativity, invention and intervention. There is an extraordinarily active and committed community of geography scholars working in the UK and globally, a community from which I have derived so much – academically and indeed personally – and one with a wealth of intellectual, expert and ethical resources to offer as researchers, educators and potential stewards or curators of a ‘better’ planet. If you feel that your ‘geographical imagination’ has been fired, and you could envisage becoming part of this wider geography community, then go for it: you have much to gain and almost certainly much to give.
Find out more about our 2021 medal and award recipients.