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An Interview with 2009 CIRP Chair, Jeanne Marecek

One of the keys to doing international work is to become part of a community of local colleagues.

Dr. Jeanne Marecek is the 2009 chair for APA’s Committee on International Relations in Psychology (CIRP). She holds the William R. Kenan Professorship in the psychology department at Swarthmore College and is affiliated with the Asian Studies Program and the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies. Marecek has worked in Sri Lanka as a researcher and trainer since she served as a Fulbright scholar in 1988. Her research in Sri Lanka concerns suicide and self-harm, gender relations, and culture-specific psychosocial interventions. She has also been a visiting scholar at universities in Sweden and Norway and a fellow of the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences. Dr. Marecek holds a PhD in clinical and social psychology from Yale University. This Q and A outlines Marecek’s plans and aspirations for the Committee on International Relations in Psychology (CIRP) for the coming year.

PI: Can you tell us a little about your international work and interests?

Marecek: I have been involved in work in Sri Lanka for about 20 years, beginning with a nine-month stay as a Fulbright scholar. Sri Lanka, the former British colony known as Ceylon, is an island off the southeast coast of India. It is low-income country and it has been wracked by 25 years of civil war. My research concerns the dramatic rise of suicide and deliberate self-harm among young people in Sri Lanka. In many ways, self-harm in Sri Lanka – demographics, cultural understandings, self-harming practices, health providers’ responses, and families’ responses – is radically different from self-harm in Euro-American contexts. It is those culture-specific aspects of suicide/self-harm that I have tried to understand.

I’ve also done a fair amount of teaching in the universities, as well as training counselors and psychosocial workers who work in the war zones and in areas affected by the 2004 tsunami. I’ve also spent a lot of time in the Nordic countries, Sweden and Norway in particular. I have visited Umeå University several times and also the University of Oslo. In 1997, I was a Fellow of the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences at Uppsala University. The Nordic countries provide a wonderful site for comparative studies of gender roles and gender relations because, unlike the US, the state actively promotes gender equality in work and family life.

PI: How did you become involved with international affairs within APA?

Marecek: Being a part of CIRP is my first formal involvement in international affairs in APA and it’s been a very rewarding one. Over the years before joining CIRP, I often brought international visitors to APA conventions as co-authors on papers or as presenters in symposia. I also attended a fair number of meetings of international societies, such as the International Society for Theory in Psychology and the International Association for Suicide Prevention, as well as conferences on gender, mental health, and suicide/self-harm in Europe and South Asia.

PI: What are your goals for CIRP in 2009?

Marecek: First, I seek ways that CIRP can support and encourage international research by US psychologists, particularly research that pays close attention to cultural models and socio-political contexts. I will seek ways for CIRP to encourage international collaborations in research, training, and applied work. My experience in Sri Lanka has made me acutely aware of the vast difference in material resources and training opportunities between high-income countries, and low-income countries. I would very much like to find more ways to share the resources that we in the US have with psychologists in low-income countries.

Another issue is the barriers facing graduate students and junior faculty who would like to pursue international research, training, or teaching. Too often, early career psychologists run up against professional structures that inhibit them from undertaking international sojourns, cross-national research projects, or even culturally sensitive research projects here in the US. I would like to find ways of eradicating some of those barriers. Many junior faculty long for such experiences, but they don’t dare chance it until they have tenure. When I hear psychologists say, “I cannot do the kind of work that I really believe in until I have tenure,” I think something is amiss. I have served on a number of selection committees for international grants and fellowships and, over the years, I have seen virtually no applications from US psychologists. I would like to change that.

A third goal is to open the way for US psychology departments to host more students and researchers from abroad (for example, as Fulbright scholars). I know there are many countries like Sri Lanka where psychology as an academic discipline is still struggling to get off the ground. International dialogue and international training can help psychology grow in those locales.

PI: Are there ways that APA members who are interested in international issues can become involved with CIRP’s work?

Marecek: Many APA members who are not on the committee are already very much involved in CIRP’s work. The Committee and the Office of International Affairs are always drawing on the expertise of psychologists who are not CIRP members. We are always seeking to locate psychologists with international knowledge and international experience.

We also try to keep psychologists informed about the issues and tasks on our agenda. People who want to be more involved can read Psychology International, which is the newsletter of the Office of International Affairs and the Monitor for reports about CIRP’s work. I encourage readers to communicate with the Office or with me when there’s an issue on the agenda on which they have expertise or ideas to contribute. And of course they can apply for CIRP membership!

PI: What challenges do you think American psychologists who are interested in international work face?

Marecek: One of the keys to doing international work is to become part of a community of local colleagues. For me, it has been crucial to have collaborators who have helped me to learn the local norms for conducting research and who are the sounding board for my ideas and interpretations. I think that continual dialogue with local partners is crucial for doing work that is meaningful and useful in the local context. Working in volatile political/military conditions, I’ve seen outsiders who operated without local partners engage in research or clinical interventions that inadvertently jeopardized the lives of participants. As you might guess, they quickly became persona non grata in the very communities they wanted to help.

Also, for many US psychologists, operating in a language other than English is a challenge. Unlike anthropology, our methods training doesn’t usually include considerations of how to work across linguistic and cultural divides. Simply back-translating a scale doesn’t go very far in addressing metacommunicative cultural differences.

In some circles, US psychologists have a bad reputation for doing what has been called “parachute research” or “suitcase studies” – the equivalent of handing out canned questionnaires in the airport and jumping on the next plane with “the data.” Of course, this is a caricature that does not fit every US psychologist. However, traditional research training in psychology has not included coverage of the methods and practices necessary for doing international research.

PI: What are CIRP’s goals for collaboration across the association?

Marecek: One of the goals I have is increasing the number of international members of APA, including international members from low-income countries. In those countries,

even the modest dues represent a substantial hardship. I would also like to reach out more to APAGS members (and graduate students in general) and find ways to help them negotiate international collaborations, international training experiences, and international research.

CIRP members have thought a lot about how to make the US psychology curriculum less provincial and less Americacentric. This will require a huge and long-term effort, but I think the will now exists to begin it. Jeffrey Arnett’s recent article in the American Psychologist, The Neglected 95%: Why American Psychology Needs to Become Less American [2008, 63, p. 602-614], is a kind of wake-up call for the discipline.

PI: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

Marecek: I’m excited to assume the chair of CIRP. During my time as a member of CIRP, I’ve learned a lot about the range of activities of the Office of International Affairs and witnessed APA’s openness to international issues and involvements. CIRP comprises a group of hard-working and enthusiastic people with fascinating interests and regional specializations that span much of the world. I see the role of the chair less as leading the committee and more as listening to members’ views, expert knowledge, and ideas and shaping them into an agenda. Ψ