Health and Cultural Context mini symposium

Some of you know that I have been involved in a “Mela” project… Many of you asked, “Mela?!”. Yes, it is a Hindu festival that occurs in many locations in India.. The one that we go to is in Allahabad and called Prayag Magh Mela. It happens in the confluence of Ganges, Yamuna, and the third invisible river.

So, I’ve been a part of the team that has been funded generously by ESRC to investigate collective participation in Magh Mela. Did I tell you that it attracts millions of people every year? Yes, the place turns into a tent city that hosts millions of Hindu pilgrims who stay there for a month. There are also day bathers who come on particularly auspicious bathing days (based on lunar calendar).

My colleagues are social psychologists who are interested in social identity and collective participation (and it doesn’t get more ‘collective’ than Mela!) and we were somewhat dumbstruck by the experiences of pilgrims (Kalpwasis) who attend this event and who report better well-being as a result of it. You may wonder why – I mean why we feel dumbstruck? Because, to us coming from the West, the setting is not conducive to better well-being: it’s noisy to begin with, fully of loud speakers and also honking vehicles.. Also sanitation is not the best.. And there is the dust and the polluted rivers.. I will see if I can add a photo to my blog but you’ll have to be patient with me!

I probably shouldn’t give away our findings but to give you a bit of a clue, we found positive impact of Mela participation on well-being… We’re currently working on submitting our manuscript so watch this space!

As promised to ESRC, we then went about organising our dissemination event. But we didn’t want it to be a boring ‘look at our wonderful research. Aren’t we great?” event.. We invited Prof. Fabio Sani (University of Dundee) to talk about his work on group life and depression. His work suggests that it’s not the number of social contacts that we have but it’s the sense of belonging (or lack of it) that predicts depression (or that’s what I understood from it!). He described his work on Polish families and also army participants to illustrate his points.

We also invited Dr. Isobel Cameron (University of Aberdeen) to talk about the new work on “Northern temperament” that she’s about to start. It’s a truly multidisciplinary work that combines arts, computing science, anthropology, medicine, and psychology. They all aim to look at aspects of “northern temperament’  – you know the stereotype about Northern people – dour etc? and if it is possible to detect it in different ways and its relationship to depression. Fascinating stuff and I look forward to hearing more about that work in the future. I also hear that there’ll be a number of PhD and post-doc opportunities coming out of this work so do keep that in mind.

We also had Dr. Stephen MacGillivray (University of Dundee, the director of Alliance for Self-Care Research) who is an expert on evidence synthesis talked about the problem of heterogeneity in meta-analysis and meta-synthesis. For most of the audience, the concept of meta-synthesis was a new one so it was quite useful to hear about it. Steve talked the role of context in evidence synthesis.. Not an easy one as you can imagine.

We also had the fortune of having Dr. Thilo Kroll (University of Dundee, Director of Social Dimensions of Health Institute), Prof. Elspeth Graham (University of St Andrews, School of Geography and Sustainable Development) and Dr. Nick Hopkins (University of Dundee and our fearless leader of the Mela project) as discussants. They’ve done a terrific job in questioning us and bringing pertinent questions to the fore: like what’s the cultural context? What’s the role of culture in health research? The audience was terrific too – a combination of public health researchers, geographers, psychologists, and medics..

Overall, I think everyone felt energised by this event and there was a general enthusiasm to connect with everyone beyond this event. That’s what I call a successful event! And also, there were more questions than answers so more work to do for all of us!

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