Friday 8 September 2023

Fred Cooper joins EPIC

More good news for project EPIC! Fred Cooper, currently a Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, will join EPIC as a Senior Research Fellow based in the Law School at the University of Bristol. We asked Fred a few questions about current interests and future plans.

Fred Cooper

Hi Fred! What is your main research interest?

Most of my work to date has been about attempting to understand the historical, political, and experiential dimensions of loneliness, although this has led me to spend substantial amounts of time with other problems, particularly shame, which share a porous border. As a historian of medicine, I’m interested in how the idea of loneliness that we work from today has been assembled over time, in different processes and contexts and by individuals and groups with different claims to expertise. 

I have an upcoming article, for example, on loneliness, shame, and personality, which uses historical methodologies to unpick some of the ways that loneliness has been (and continues to be) framed as a matter of personal failure. Maybe predictably given my disciplinary training, I’m also interested in temporal representations of loneliness (i.e., as a crisis or epidemic linked to the present or the very recent past); I’ve written recently on the history of this strain of thinking and why I think it constrains the kinds of questions we need to ask.

Threaded through this work has been a series of important questions over how knowledge is built and by who. Focusing primarily on loneliness, my case study at EPIC will tack between historical, philosophical, and engaged research methods to think critically about how epistemic injustices are produced and perpetuated over (relatively) long periods of time, and the impact this has on opportunities for epistemic, experiential, and structural redress.

Why do you think it is important to study epistemic injustice in healthcare?

I strongly suspect that a significant number of people working in the medical humanities, social sciences, and other kinds of health research – particularly where that work involves co-production, engaged research, or other kinds of participatory methods – are fundamentally concerned with epistemic injustice, even when they don’t use that precise framing. 

Just the other day, I spoke at a knowledge exchange symposium between the University of Exeter’s Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health (my workplace for the past six years), and the Copenhagen Centre for Health Research in the Humanities; in almost every talk or discussion, problems of service user testimony being discarded or derided were addressed, or of complex systems of knowledge being created around – but not necessarily with or for – the people concerned. 

As well as opening up new lines of research and new ways of identifying and ameliorating harm, epistemic injustice is a vastly useful conceptual tool for better articulating and understanding many of the phenomena that researchers are already substantively engaged with. In the ethical imperative to work on epistemic injustice in ways that don’t unwittingly reproduce hierarchical or extractive epistemic processes, it can also inform and improve our engagements with different partners and publics.

What are you working on right now?

I’m currently working on a resource which draws out insights from historical research on loneliness for a wider, non-humanities audience. Co-authored with 15 other scholars, it’s an overture to other disciplines - and health policymakers too - to work in closer dialogue with historical questions, findings, methods, and researchers. One of many reasons I’m excited about joining EPIC is the chance to show what historical practice can do in this kind of outward-looking interdisciplinary space, particularly as historical contributions to the existing literature on epistemic injustice have been relatively few. 

I’m also working on several talks: my first Keynote, for a symposium on loneliness and shame at the University of Bristol, and a paper on loneliness and culture for a seminar with the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. Ahead of starting work at EPIC in the new year, I’m beginning to sketch out how my case study will work in practice, thinking about sources and archives, and putting together thoughts on possible collaborations with the rest of the team.

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