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Carla Willig


Training Location(s):

PhD, University of Cambridge, (1991)

MPhil (Criminology), University of Cambridge, (1987)

BSc, University of Manchester, (1986)

Primary Affiliation(s):

City University, (1999-present)

Middlesex University, (1993-1999)

University of Plymouth, (1991-1993)

Media Links:
Professional Website

Dr. Carla Willig at City University


Psychology's Feminist Voices Oral History Transcript


Oral History Excerpt on YouTube: Don't Get Sedimented in an Identity

Oral History Excerpt on YouTube: Have the Courage to Interpret

Oral History Excerpt on YouTube: The Value of Reading



Career Focus: Existential counselling and psychotherapy; phenomenology as philosophy and research method; applied discourse analysis; health psychology; health promotion; risk-taking and health behaviour; living with life-threatening illness.


Carla Willig was born in 1964 in Germany. She began her studies at the University of Manchester, UK and received her BSc (Honours) in 1986. When asked about the development of her "feminist identity," she responded, "I don't really have a feminist identity" - explaining that she doesn't identify herself with any particular identity per se, although her work might be labeled by others as critical or feminist. Rather, "I have a certain approach to what I do - my work and my life both together - and that way of doing my work and life does involve being critical of the taken-for-granted and mainstream ways of doing things and that applies across the board."


Gender is an area where Willig has been critical and challenging of the status quo, but she also believes that this critical stance applies equally to other issues that have personal and political consequences for individuals. Willig, states that her feminist identity is in many ways part of her larger, left-wing political identity. Although she recalls that as a teenager she was not particularly political, during her time at university she became very politically active. She remembers a week-long student sit-in on the administration building at the University of Manchester, an experience that was both exciting and radicalizing but frightening as well: bailiffs were called in to chase the protesters away and arrest those who would not leave.


When she began her studies at the University of Manchester she joined the Student Union Women's Group that met every week to talk about gender issues and how to deal with sexist behaviour, the body, safety, and politics. Willig reflects that she joined not because she identified as a feminist, but because it seemed to be a place where she could explore some of the critical questions she had. In retrospect, she muses that joining this group probably gave her a feminist identity, but at the time this was not the motivating factor. The Student Unions Women's Group at the University of Manchester has a strong history in the UK and is well-known not only for its activities (e.g., setting up "Reclaim the Night" marches), but also for its provisions of safe transport for women. Willig could attend events late into the evening and feel assured that she would be brought home safely on the women's mini-bus. Willig states that the women's group was a very important part of her university life.


While still a student, Willig also joined the Socialist Workers Party, and she recalls that there was at times tension between the two groups as the workers party put class above gender as a category of oppression and tended to see gender roles as a product of capitalism rather than looking at patriarchy as a separate system of oppression. She was involved with this group for 10 years, and says that her political life was shaped more by this affiliation than by a feminist one. However, the overlap is clear, as being a socialist for Willig also meant she was an anti-racist and feminist.


Willig did her Master's degree in Criminology at the University of Cambridge and received her MPhil in 1987. She recalls that graduate studies were a turning point for her intellectually. She took a qualitative methods class with feminist psychologist Maureen Cain which was inspiring, and she learned about epistemology - one of her primary interests and teaching topics. In addition, she recalls a class on the construction of crime taught by a Marxist professor who looked at crime as a product of capitalism. She was developing a social constructionist understanding and recalls that this changed her whole way of thinking. It was at this point that Willig began to see the connection between academics and politics.


Willig completed her PhD in social psychology in 1991 through the interdisciplinary Department of Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge University. Her dissertation research was on AIDS/HIV, a topic of increasing prominence in the UK in the late 1980's. She was interested in understanding why certain people were so fearful of or emotionally engaged with the disease while others were not, even when relative risk levels were the same. Initially she proposed to focus on class, and thought that class would be a differentiating factor. She was surprised when through her grounded theory analysis gender emerged as the site of differences in how people spoke about and made sense of their sexual behaviour in relation to HIV risk.


During her doctoral studies Willig continued to learn about qualitative research methods, especially discourse analysis. She used discourse analysis throughout the 1990s, extending her research beyond health risk behaviours. Seeking a renewed sense of excitement and curiosity about her work, around 2002, Willig decided to obtain existential counsellor training at Regent's College, London, receiving her MA in Existential Counselling Psychology in 2005. Willig describes existential counselling as a non-prescriptive approach that aims to help a person work through and think about how they approach life. It is compatible with a social constructionist perspective, as it is concerned with how we create meaning, yet it is existential in that it deals with some of life's most fundamental issues, such as, morality, relating to others, and being in a body.     


Willig has had a very prolific publishing career.  Her favorite publications are ones where she is not just offering a synopsis of a topic, but where she is offering something new, or a  fresh perspective on an otherwise saturated topic. In reflecting on her wish list for psychology, Willig states that she wishes psychologists would have  "more courage to interpret." And this is something she is actively doing herself. She also advises new scholars to avoid getting stuck in a niche or becoming beholden to one identity. In terms of the power of the intellectual identity, she remarks, "use ideas but don't become a set of ideas ... be flexible because otherwise things get very dull and very fixed and you lose the curiosity and excitement and interest."


by Marissa Barnes (2010)

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works:


Willig, C. (2009) "Unlike a rock, a tree, a horse or an angel...": Reflections on the struggle for meaning through writing during the process of cancer diagnosis. Journal of Health Psychology, 14(2), 181-189.


Willig, C. (2008). A phenomenological investigation of the experience of taking part in extreme sport. Journal of Health Psychology, 13(5), 690-702.


Willig, C. (2008). Introducing qualitative research methods in psychology: Adventures in theory and Method (2nd ed.). Maidenhead, UK: McGraw Hill/Open University Press.


Willig, C., & Stainton-Rogers, W. (Eds.). (2008). The SAGE handbook of qualitative research in psychology. London: Sage.


Willig, C. (2007). Reflections on the use of a phenomenological method. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 4, 1-17.


Willig, C. (2000). A discourse dynamic approach to the study of subjectivity. Theory & Psychology, 10(4), 547-570.                                                                                               


Willig, C. (Ed.). (1999). Applied discourse analysis: Social and psychological interventions. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.


Willig, C. (1998). Social constructionism and revolutionary socialism - A contradiction in terms? In I. Parker (Ed.), Social constructionism, discourse and realism (pp. 91-104). London: Sage.


Willig, C. (1997). Trust as risky practice. In L. Segal (Ed.), New sexual agendas (pp. 125-135). London: Palgrave Macmillan.


Willig, C. (1992). Assumptions in people's talk about AIDS. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 2, 217-221.


Photo Gallery:


Interview with Carla Willig: Advice: Don't Get Sedimented in an Identity

Interview conducted on July 17, 2007 by Leeat Granek in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.


Interview with Carla Willig: Have the Courage to Interpret

Interview conducted on July 17, 2007 by Leeat Granek in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.


Interview with Carla Willig: The Value of Reading

Interview conducted on July 17, 2007 by Leeat Granek in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.