Focus: ‘Here be dragons!’ Reclaiming the romance of research on the margins

Focus: ‘Here be dragons!’ Reclaiming the romance of research on the margins

Sara Ashencaen Crabtree (University of Bournmouth)

Recently I was asked to contribute to an edited book on research in Borneo, which sported the entitled injunction of standing ‘Beyond Romance…’ This was an interesting bone of contention to gnaw, which I explore here. I spent five years in Sarawak on Borneo many years ago winning my spurs as an academic, discovering both how to teach and, equally crucially, the overarching theme of my future research – the excavation of marginal lives and hidden voices – which for nearly twenty years I have pursued across diverse and difficult tracks. Malaysia provided opportunities to focus on narratives of users of psychiatric services. I have also tackled disabilities in the Middle East; racism in Hong Kong; Muslim perspectives in social work; faith, gender and ethnic politics; and, recently, ecologically threatened indigeneous communities.

The chapter requested focused on my ethnographic study of a psychiatric institution in Sarawak, East Malaysia. This institution once located deep in the rainforest was by then no longer separated from civil society due to urban osmosis. Historically it had been one of the last asylums built under colonial rule, albeit a very different colonial regime to that of mainland Malaysia. Sarawak had been the private fiefdom of three generations of the Brooke family, the ‘White Rajahs’ of Sarawak. In 1841 James Brooke, an English buccaneer, was made a gift of this magnificent, untamed territory in reward for his swashbuckling services to the Sultan of Borneo.

In governing Sarawak, the Brookes made some key policy decisions that proved beneficial to developing the wealth and ethnic demographics of the region. This occurred against the occasional backdrop of suppressing violent insurrections and extending benevolent largesse through a mixture of hard-headed politics and, anachronistically, multicultural idealism. This not unhappy, but certainly picaresque, history was brought to a devastating end by the Japanese invasion of Sarawak. Achieving independence post-war, Sarawak promptly lost it again by acceding to the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, resulting in the gross exploitation of its natural resources by mainland Malaysia, loss of wealth and a loss of status – a situation much lamented by the majority of Sarawakians and where the passing of time has proved no balm.

Sarawak is fundamentally intensely romantic (hence stern editorial warnings against over-indulgence). My introduction to mental health services here was duly not at all mundane, but commenced with an initiation into the work of the hospital’s community psychiatric nurses. For hours, two days a week, we were tossed around in a battered 4-wheel drive as we careered from the gated, Chinese townhouses of bustling townships into increasingly remote forested areas, following the slow, jungle rivers garlanded with creepers and along gurgling, green tributaries. We passed the villages of the many peoples of Sarawak: Malay houses brightly painted in Gauguin shades, the discreet timber and atap (thatched) homes of Dayaks, Chinese smallholdings a-squawk with poultry; along squatters’ corrugated-iron, shanty towns, or the traditional, isolated Iban Dayak ‘longhouse’ – home to an entire community. Eventually we reached our ‘service users’, often some deeply impoverished, poor soul living the simplest of hermit existences, gave him an unceremonious three-month depot injection, talked briefly to worried relatives, offered rice as alms and then drove bouncily along the track to the next destination.

It was in the hospital environment itself where my study really bedded in (forgive the pun). I spent sixteen months data-gathering and locked in for hours with the ‘patients’, both men and women, from fresh and fearful youngsters to gnarled old veterans – and I made friends with many. They taught me basic Bahasa Malaysia, shared secrets, dreams, disturbing information, sexual innuendoes and disconcerting invitations, peppered with plenty of gallows humour. Crucially I was also instructed on survival tactics for Planet Asylum – which enriched and tempered my understanding considerably. Like Bluebeard’s bride I often wandered into both topics and the secreted corners of the asylum where perhaps the more cautious might fear to tread – and duly had the occasional fright from being overly inquisitive or confident.

Engrossed by this sequestered world, I found many patients had spent decades there. In a society of minimal social welfare where families are expected to shoulder the burden mostly unaided, institutional care may be both a prison and a refuge. However, the English spectacle on a cold December day of the bagged, living bodies of the mentally ill and the deviant slumped in shop doorways – the flotsam of community care – does not seem a superior ideological paradigm to the continuing legacy of the paternalistic Victorian asylum in Malaysia.

Social scientists have found much to glean in the terrain of mental disorders, subjecting this plunder of discarded histories, anecdotes, fact and fiction, to competing theorisation. The term ‘madness’ has been reclaimed as denoting phenomena distinct from that of the medical domain with its intentionally anodyne appellation, ‘mental illness’ – suggesting a prosaic condition of the mind, akin to any other physical affliction. Yet, of course, it is not the same – therein lies the horror and the allure. If the discourse of medicalisation arguably dominates over other discourses in its attempt to define, catalogue and control mental distress, the term ‘madness’ acknowledges the suffering, loneliness and chaos of the afflicted mind.

Interestingly, while insanity has commonly been viewed as nothing short of disastrous, exhaling a toxic canker over many promising lives, Foucault exercises ludic, intellectual perversity in turning his scrutiny on historical stratagems for dealing with the mad. Referring to William’s Tuke’s historical, humane ‘mad-house’ in York, ‘The Retreat’, where moral treatment directed deranged residents towards normalised behaviour, Foucault deconstructs such attempts as imposing intolerable moral constraints over the unfettered mind of the mad, irrespective of whether their bodies were subject to restraint. He creates the imagined mental playground of the insane, where all rules of civil society can be reversed and new laws of misrule open to creation. In this way psychic anarchy is romanticised as a ferment of creative polarity opposed to the deadening entropy of normativity.

Such a position resonates with the historical reframing of madness by the English, nineteenth century Romantic Movement in both literature and art. From being regarded as a brutish, vile condition of insensibility, morally, spiritually and physically – typified by the madwoman in the attic, Mrs Rochester, from Jane Eyre, madness became elevated into heightened sensibility. Thus madness became intimately connected with sensitive, tortured genius together with moral ambiguities in an age of spiritual tension, as personified by Blake, brilliant poet and artist (of fragile mental health), the infamous poet, Don Juan and partisan warrior, Lord Byron of ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ fame. The later artistic sanctification of the completely overlooked literary wonder, Thomas Chatterton, by the pre-Raphaelite painter, Henry Wallis, came to symbolise the yearnings of the Romantic Movement. The actual Chatterton was a child prodigy who committed suicide in his cheap lodgings at the age of seventeen in a state of dire poverty and the despairing death of ambition. In the twentieth century, the British psychedelic rock band, Pink Floyd, paid tribute to this powerfully embedded, cultural notion of genius-madness in their well-known song ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’. This song was an in vivo memorial to their former lead singer, Sid Barrett, whose youth, ominous beauty and brilliance was destroyed by a devastating descent into mental illness following serious drug abuse.

To turn full circle, however, a much more prosaic focus based on the discourses or citizen rights has repositioned madness to that of a complex health condition; where it is the quality of health services and the voice of the consumer that takes centre stage as the main consideration – thus appearing to unlink the Romantic notion of a seductive agony of sensibility. The ‘service user’ focus has taken time to reach its present point of respectability in British society; in fact more than this, an assumed position of authority; and this tardiness is not surprising given the hegemony of psychiatric services and the presumed incapacity of any judgement in service users. That mental health service user perspectives are now better established as voices of authority than at any time since the days of the Old Testament ‘Ecstatics’, the Nabi’im, is indicated by the success of individuals with mental health histories being formally recruited to British advisory boards and panels from government bodies to university stakeholder groups. Here they are sought for their opinion on services and educational courses relating to mental health.

This is seemingly a rather curious trajectory from tormented lunatic to service user, from gothic torment to humdrum committee representation; and is perhaps symbolic of our fall from florid idiosyncrasy into herd-like banality. In this we are reminded of the Stanley Kubrick film, ‘2001’ in which the astronauts, Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, are depicted as tediously bland, unflappable ‘everymen’, albeit in space. The sole interesting character in the film (apart from the temperamental pre-human apes) is HAL, the mendacious, serial killer computer, who conforms to our notions of the heartless human psychopath – and invites our fascination with this terrifying ‘character’.

Although in a subsequent book and film, 2010, HAL is rather disappointingly acquitted of his criminal tendencies, we are still provided with some spine-chilling relish. The unfortunate HAL is discovered to have been the victim of the madness inducing application of the theory of ‘double-bind’ messages in its/his mechanised infancy: the enacted dilemma of impossibly contradictory expectations that leads to insanity within families that are the nurturers of psychopathologies, typically schizophrenia, as described decades ago by Laing and Esterson.

The inner story of HAL’s pathology remains untold. HAL is, after all, in the end merely a dysfunctioning, artificial intelligence, thus the tale must be told by others. Commensurately authentic accounts of madness until lately have been rare. While there are accounts from those outside looking in to observe the spectacle of madness, whether out of genuine concern, social control or entertainment, few voices of sufferers can be rescued from the past. As Porter (2006) points out, until relatively recently the words of the mad have usually carried no authority, were regarded as mere ravings and were therefore not recorded for posterity. Consequently, captured narratives of women forcibly admitted to asylum care in nineteenth century North America by their relatives, estranged husbands often, are all the more precious in their rarity (Geller & Harris, 1994).

Not all historical asylums were brutal, although they have become a byword for brutality in our imagination, yet undoubtedly those experienced by these pioneer women were truly terrible places of violence and degradation. Interestingly these North American institutions were regarded as far inferior to those being developed in Victorian Malaya under the busy colonial authorities exercising the three dominant tools of British imperialism: administration, military might and medicine. The former and latter legacy remains alive and well, if unacknowledged, right across the post-colonial world. In my study site these old roots were clearly discernable and the institution itself one of the many contemporary inheritors of the old system of colonial psychiatry (Ashencaen Crabtree, 2012).

The question of the need to move beyond romance becomes moot when we revisit the heart-warming notion of solidarity among the oppressed. A naïve assumption is that this is a natural and almost instinctive response among members of oppressed groups where such dynamics may be expected as a collective force of resistance. An assumption that is complete devastated by Primo Levi’s autobiography, If This is A Man, in reference to the figure of the camp ‘kapo’, an individual as equally feared, perhaps more so in some cases, as the camp guards; for the kapo also carries the power of life and death over prisoners, and yet being part of the prisoner body is a more familiar and ever present danger.

In my own study of psychiatric in-patients, any illusion of a flattened hierarchy, let alone collective resistance, among patients was soon dismissed. I found instead that patient hierarchies were as closely observed as staff ones were. Some patients therefore were found to operate as regular ‘turn-keys’, where they had been given the authority to open or not the locked door to a particular ward and therefore held the great power to contain other patients. Other patients operated as foremen/women of patient labour, their labour of course being marked by authority to delegate more menial or disagreeable tasks to others. Being in charge of food was another aspect of authority, and given that most patients had little else to look forward to than their monotonous and often unpalatable meals, this was no trivial authority to hold over their peers. Finally, while I do not believe that any patient was given the overt right to punish others, I did occasionally witness some of these patient kapos (for want of a better word) of both sexes behave in both a menacing and aggressive way to subordinates with complete impunity.

In researching other marginalised groups since these early Sarawakian days, I have often found internecine conflict among groups that I would deem to be subject to conspicuous oppression; and where collective resistance would seem to be a more beneficial strategy than individual opportunism. Resorting to individualistic strategies is of course merely a reflection of how successful oppressive systems are in recognising the need to break down solidarity through ‘divide and rule’ strategies of maintaining the status quo. Such dynamics can be viewed by social scientists as forming merely another interesting social phenomenon to study, provided that the necessary emotional distance can be maintained, and is not contaminated by the subjective emotion of growing disillusion.

So reminiscing as I write, I think back over all the research I have done, mostly in remote locations of the world and among marginalised groups, and ask myself what is it about the voice of the oppressed that is so compelling to research? To this question, I ask another, in reference to the title of this edited collection, what exactly is meant by the term, ‘romance’ and whereof the need to go ‘beyond’ it?

The term ‘romance’, associated with amorous love, also carries a more interesting usage conveying remoteness, excitement and mystery. Indeed, this is precisely where the fascination lies. The ‘other’ remains so, while distanced by unfamiliarity; and while the ‘other’ may be vilified, it is also compelling. There is a yearning to know the ‘other’ and yet the fear that by doing so, then the mystery is solved and the interest vanishes – a case of ‘familiarity breeding contempt’. Such dilemmas are present in research but act as no deterrent, where to ‘know’ and gain mastery of this new knowledge is the driving agenda of research. The unheard voice is there to be excavated, brought into the light, examined, explored, known and projected outwards into the ether via dissemination. Previously muted and unheard, the voice of the marginalised, is hugely magnified by the academic machinery of creating fora and dialogue.

This is the power of academia, and a great consolation that is to researchers, when the voices of the marginalised are soulful accompaniments to the material oppressions that bear down upon participants. When we undertake research on and, hopefully, with the oppressed we become aware of both our power as researchers, but also our grave impotence. There is little we can do to stem the daily tide of oppressive practices that impact so heavily upon those we research.

At that point, we may have to challenge the shibboleth of research ethics, which increasingly is focused on a limited remit of protocols and restrictions but has surprisingly little to say about the ethics of research among the oppressed and how to proceed ethically in the face of actual need. This is where truly ethical research carries a moral imperative and appears to demand a greater reciprocation for accounts gathered than merely a thanks or a token incentive. It raises difficult questions of what kind of reciprocation can be expected by participant and what obligations and responsibilities we hold towards our participants, particularly those facing social injustice.

It may lead us to consider whether an element of social activism is required, to express solidarity with our participants, and to be able to exert our conscience in practical ways, now that the unknown is known and part of our own experiences of an unjust world. This romantic, indeed even quixotic attitude of the researcher cum social warrior, is almost irresistible, except that too much competence in the latter role is likely to earn a swift ejection from the study site, creating yet another virtually insoluble ethical dilemma.

I question whether romance obscures or distorts ‘truths’. Instead I would posit that in fact a good dose of romance is a necessary pre-requisite for entry into morally engaged research. Here I use the term ‘romance’ in its meaning of passionate eagerness to grapple with the problematics as well as the besetting problems of research, particularly among hard-to-reach groups and research on the margins. The cry of ‘here be dragons!’ was never meant to be a faint-hearted warning to retreat to fat and easy pastures, but rather to engage in the pursuit with wholehearted passion and commitment.

Ashencaen Crabtree, S. (2012) A Rainforest Asylum: The enduring legacy of colonial psychiatric care in Malaysia. London: Whiting & Birch.
Geller, J.L. & Harris, M. (1994) Women of the Asylum. New York: Anchor Books.
Porter, R. (2006) Madmen. Stroud, Glos: Tempus Publishing Limited.


Sara Ashencaen Crabtree is Head of Sociology at Bournemouth University and Editor-in-Chief of a social science monograph series ‘Critical Studies in Socio-Cultural Diversity’ for Whiting & Birch. She has worked extensively in Southeast Asia and the Middle East and is widely published in areas of discrimination and disadvantage, cross-cultural issues and belief. She is the author of A Rainforest Asylum: The enduring legacy of colonial psychiatric care in Malaysia. She is currently engaged in ethnographic research on the Orang Asli indigeneous people of West Malaysia and a cross-cultural, multi-faith study of women’s constructions of religious faith.