Skip to content

Toggle service links

You are here

  1. Home
  2. Dr Sara MacKian

Dr Sara MacKian

Dr Sara MacKian

Profile summary

  • Central Academic Staff
  • Senior Lecturer in Health & Wellbeing
  • Faculty of Wellbeing, Education & Language Studies
  • School of Health, Wellbeing and Social Care
  • Health and Social Care
  • sara.mackian

Professional biography

I joined the Open University in 2008 as a Senior Lecturer in Health and Wellbeing. Prior to that I spent seven years as a Lecturer in Health Geographies at the University of Manchester. Previous positions have included Senior Research Fellow at Salford University and Project Consultant for the Co-operative Bank working on their community partnership strategy.

Research interests

My research is wide ranging but the driving theme is a curiosity for how people and organisations interact around issues of health and wellbeing. I'm particularly interested in how worlds of experience change as a result of lifecourse challenges. This has resulted in studies on ME, maternal health, parenting and gay men’s health. More recently I have been exploring the use of alternative spiritualities by individuals and organisations to enhance wellbeing and the role of spirituality more broadly in contemporary British society. This aspect of my research is inspired by the idea that the world is more mysterious and enchanted than we habitually think. Using social science and art combined, I explore the relationship between the real and the imaginary, the body and the spirit, this world and the otherworldly.

I have a particular interest in qualitative methods and creative approaches to social science research and learning.

Spirited Stoke: Spiritualism in the Everyday Life of Stoke-on-Trent (SpELS)

SpELS is an AHRC-funded research project using participatory photography and ethnographic research to explore how spirit and Spiritualism are woven through the historic and contemporary fabric of the city of Stoke-on-Trent. Spiritualism is a philosophy and religion based on the belief that the soul continues to live following the death of the physical body and that communication with spirit is possible through the channel of trained mediums. It has often been assumed that Spiritualism is a religion of the past, however, from the latest Census numbers and the on-going presence of Spiritualist churches across Britain, there is no doubt that Spiritualism is still alive and well today. The overall aim of this project is to further theoretical understanding of the place of spirituality and spirit in everyday life, bringing insights from the practices of Spiritualist Churches and their congregations. You can find out more about the project by following us on Twitter (@SpELSproject) or Facebook.

The Spirituality of Everyday Life: spaces of experience and practice

This is an ongoing project following the publication of my book 'Everyday Spirituality: social and spatial worlds of enchantment', exploring the growing ‘spiritual turn’ in Western society. I am interested in exploring everyday alternative spiritualities at a variety of geographical scales, from the body to the nation, to provide a deeper exploration of the way in which apparently individualised appropriations of spiritual awareness impact and compound across society and space. You can learn more by visiting the Everyday Spirituality Blog.


‘Tell it like it is’: exploring experience and raising public and practitioner awareness of living with UC

‘Standing outside waiting to use the disabled toilet that doubles up as baby changing room. Mother came out said to her friend “I hate people using the disabled toilet when there's nothing wrong with em” and stood staring at me. Lifted up my top and showed my deep scar running from the top of me ribs and down into jeans and a stoma bag full to bursting. Toddler screamed mother stood with her mouth open to the floor. Job done’.

This experience, posted on an online support forum for people living with ulcerative colitis, is sadly not uncommon. Ulcerative colitis is more prevalent in the UK than Multiple Sclerosis or Parkinson’s Disease and yet is less well-known. Compared to other long-term conditions, people with UC perceive substantially more negative impact upon their lives, particularly in terms of the psychological burden. Knowing more about what matters to people living with UC would be of benefit to developing peer support, education for health professionals and for developing wider public awareness. This project therefore intends to explore in patients’ own words, what it is like to live with UC and what they would like doctors and the wider public to know. In particular it will explore the role of online interaction as a mechanism for a particularly open and honest form of support.


Past projects...

Reflexive parenting: exploring parental decision making (pump priming from the Royal Geographical Society)

Parenting represents one experience which may challenge our understanding of the world and prompt us into a complex process of reflexivity. Progressive medicalisation of childbirth and parenting – in Western society in particular - has led to an emphasis on health professional involvement, and a lack of attention to the wider role of civil society and empowerment in parental decision making. Nonetheless parental decision making varies considerably geographically within and between countries. This venture began with a small pilot project funded by the RGS to develop collaborative links through a research visit to the Public Health and Caring Sciences, University of Uppsala, Sweden in 2006. The aim is to explore the social and cultural embeddedness of parental decision making within the first year of a child’s life. The comparative perspective between Sweden and England - two countries with very different patterns of infant feeding and parenting cultures - will help to shed light on how and why parents make the decisions they do.

Health literacy and framing of health messages in the gay community (Economic and Social Research Council)

This project, in collaboration with Professor Paul Bellaby and Dr John Goldring at the Institute for Social, Cultural and Policy Research at Salford University, was driven by the belief that current understandings of health literacy are based on a narrow interpretation of ‘illness literacy’. Using gay men as a case study, the project suggested policy developers and service providers would benefit from a broader understanding of both health and literacy in order to target health promotion messages.

Development, Participation and Health (Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship)

Globally participation has been elevated (some would say controversially) to prime position in health systems development. However this faith in participation is not without its problems and there is no consistent and concrete agenda, theoretically or pragmatically. Participation is a complex medley of thoughts, actions and outcomes which are inherently political – seeking to define the relationship between development ‘subject’ and ‘object’. Drawing on discourses of citizenship, patients’ rights and power, this project was part of a broader programme of work funded by the Department for International Development which sought to develop theoretical insight whilst bringing together international practitioners to develop knowledge and understanding of participation in action.

Public Health and Primary Care (Department of Health)

I was employed as a researcher on this programme at the National Primary Care Research and Development Centre, University of Salford. The project examined public health pathways, organisational and professional cultures of practice, focusing on how professional communities of practice influence the dissemination, uptake and development of policy initiatives on the ground. 


Teaching interests

My teaching at the Open University has involved primarily working on K313 Leadership and Management in Health and Social Care and K217 Adult Health, Social Care and Wellbeing. Teaching experience prior to joining the Open University has included undergraduate and Masters level courses on space, culture and society, health and wellbeing, and qualitative theoretical and methodological approaches in social science.

My aim through all my teaching is to facilitate independent, creative thinking to empower students to develop their full capacity.

Research Activity

Research groups

NameTypeParent Unit
OpenSpace Research CentreCentreFaculty of Social Sciences


Externally funded projects

Spirited Stoke: Spiritualism in the Everyday Life of Stoke-on-Trent

RoleStart dateEnd dateFunding source
Lead01/Oct/201431/May/2016AHRC Arts & Humanities Research Council
Stoke-on-Trent, famous for its pottery industry, has its past written into the cultural and material landscape of the city, resulting in a peculiarly haunting backdrop to the familiar story of urban industrial decay. In recent years Stoke City Council has tried to reinvigorate the region, drawing on this industrial heritage and redesigning Stoke as a vibrant and youthful city of culture. However, the emphasis on its pot-based past hides another important aspect of Stoke’s cultural heritage, a thriving historical and contemporary Spiritualist movement. The project aims to uncover this hidden legacy, exploring the role of Spiritualism across the lifecourse in people’s everyday lives. A key part of the project is to hold an exhibition at the Gladstone Museum exploring the historical and contemporary role of Spiritualism in the city. Materials gathered through the research (including photography, video, audio and material artefacts) will be used to create a lasting legacy that records this hidden heritage, whilst also serving as a space for opening up a conversation around the role of spirituality in people’s everyday sense of wellbeing.


"Creating a World for Spirit": affectual infrastructures and the production of a place for affect (2019-02-28)
Pile, Steve; Bartolini, Nadia and MacKian, Sara
Emotion, Space and Society, 30 (pp. 1-8)
Talking with the dead: spirit mediumship, affect and embodiment in Stoke-on-Trent (2018-05-21)
Pile, Steve; Bartolini, Nadia and MacKian, Sara
Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 43(2) (pp. 170-183)
The impact of multiple sclerosis on the identity of mothers in Italy (2018)
Willson, Catherine Louise; Tetley, Josie; Lloyd, Cathy; Messmer Uccelli, Michele and MacKian, Sara
Disability and Rehabilitation, 40(12) (pp. 1456-1467)
Spirit knows: materiality, memory and the recovery of Spiritualist places and practices in Stoke-on-Trent (2018)
Bartolini, Nadia; MacKian, Sara and Pile, Steve
Social & Cultural Geography ((Early Access))
The place of spirit: Modernity and the geographies of spirituality (2017-06-01)
Bartolini, Nadia; Chris, Robert; MacKian, Sara and Pile, Steve
Progress in Human Geography, 41(3) (pp. 338-354)
Psychics, crystals, candles and cauldrons: alternative spiritualities and the question of their esoteric economies (2013)
Bartolini, Nadia; Chris, Robert; MacKian, Sara and Pile, Steve
Social & Cultural Geography, 14(4) (pp. 367-388)
Crossing spiritual boundaries: encountering, articulating and representing otherworlds (2011-12)
MacKian, Sara
Methodological Innovations Online, 6(3) (pp. 61-74)
Ethnicity and mental health encounters in primary care: help-seeking and help-giving for perinatal depression among Black Caribbean women in the UK (2010)
Edge, Dawn and MacKian, Sara C.
Ethnicity and Health, 15(1) (pp. 93-111)
What the papers say: Reading therapeutic landscapes of women’s health and empowerment in Uganda (2008-03)
MacKian, Sara C.
Health & Place, 14(1) (pp. 106-115)
Social problems, primary care and pathways to help and support: addressing health inequalities at the individual level. Part I: the GP perspective (2007)
Popay, Jennie; Kowarzik, Ute; Mallinson, Sara; MacKian, Sara and Barker, Jacqui
Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 61 (pp. 966-971)
Social problems, primary care and pathways to help and support: addressing health inequalities at the individual level. Part II: lay perspectives (2007)
Popay, Jennie; Kowarzik, Ute; Mallinson, Sara; MacKian, Sara and Barker, Jacqui
Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 61 (pp. 972-977)
Developing the public health workforce: a 'communities of practice' perspective (2006)
Mallinson, Sara; Popay, Jennie; Kowarzik, Ute and MacKian, Sara
Policy and Politics, 34(2) (pp. 265-285)
Mapping reflexive communities: visualising the geographies of emotion (2004-12)
MacKian, Sara
Social & Cultural Geography, 5(4) (pp. 615-631)
Developing public health work in local health systems (2004-10)
Popay, Jennie; Mallinson, Sara; Kowarzik, Ute; MacKian, Sara; Busby, Helen and Elliott, Heather
Primary Health Care Research and Development, 5(4) (pp. 338-350)
Up the garden path and over the edge: where might health-seeking behaviour take us? (2004-05)
MacKian, Sara; Bedri, Nafisa and Lovel, Hermione
Health Policy and Planning, 19(3) (pp. 137-146)
Up the garden path and over the edge: where might health-seeking behaviour take us? (2004)
MacKian, Sara; Bedri, Nafisa and Lovel, Hermione
Health Policy and Planning, 19(3) (pp. 137-146)
'Everywhere and nowhere': locating and understanding the 'new' public health (2003)
MacKian, Sara; Elliott, Heather; Busby, Helen and Popay, Jennie
Health & Place, 9(3) (pp. 219-229)
Complex Cultures: rereading the story about health and social capital (2002)
MacKian, Sara
Critical Social Policy, 22(2) (pp. 203-225)
Jump in! The water’s warm: a comment on Peck's 'grey geography' (2000)
Banks, Mark and MacKian, Sara
Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 25(3) (pp. 249-254)
Contours of coping: mapping the subject world of long-term illness (2000)
MacKian, Sara
Health & Place, 6(2) (pp. 95-104)
The Citizen’s New Clothes: care in a Welsh community (1998)
MacKian, Sara
Critical Social Policy, 18(54) (pp. 27-50)
'That great dust-heap called history': recovering the multiple spaces of citizenship (1995-02)
MacKian, Sara
Political Geography, 14(2) (pp. 209-216)
Spiritualism in Stoke-on-Trent (2016-05)
MacKian, Sara; Bartolini, Nadia; Pile, Steve and Sambo, Daniele
ISBN : 978-1-5262-0339-7 | Publisher : TWTD Press | Published : Glasgow
Nature Light Truth: An exploration of Spiritualism in the Everyday Life of Stoke-on-Trent (2016-03-01)
Sambo, Daniele; Bartolini, Nadia; MacKian, Sara and Pile, Steve
ISBN : 978-1-5262-0086-0 | Publisher : TWTD Press | Published : Glasgow
Everyday Spirituality: Social and Spatial Worlds of Enchantment (2012-02-07)
MacKian, Sara
ISBN : 9780230219397 | Publisher : Palgrave Macmillan | Published : Basingstoke, UK
Spaces of spirituality: an introduction (2018-02-15)
Bartolini, Nadia; MacKian, Sara and Pile, Steve
In: Bartolini, Nadia; MacKian, Sara and Pile, Steve eds. Spaces of Spirituality. Routledge Research in Culture, Space and Identity (pp. 1-20)
ISBN : 978-1-138-22606-7 | Publisher : Routledge | Published : London
Introduction: placing touch within social theory and empirical study (2012-10)
Paterson, Mark; Dodge, Martin and MacKian, Sara
In: Paterson, Mark and Dodge, Martin eds. Touching Space, Placing Touch (pp. 1-28)
ISBN : 978-1-4094-0214-5 | Publisher : Ashgate | Published : Farnham
Touched by spirit: sensing the material impacts of intangible encounters (2012-10)
MacKian, Sara
In: Paterson, Mark and Dodge, Martin eds. Touching Space, Placing Touch (pp. 249-268)
ISBN : 978-1-4094-0214-5 | Publisher : Ashgate | Published : Farnham
Me and ME: therapeutic landscapes in an unfamiliar world (2011-11)
MacKian, Sara
In: Lloyd, Cathy and Heller, Tom eds. Long-term Conditions: challenges in health and social care
ISBN : 9780857027498 | Publisher : Sage | Published : London
'What's he looking at me for?' Implications of age and generation for gay men's health promotion (2010-11-12)
MacKian, Sara and Goldring, John E.
In: Jones, Rebecca L. and Ward, Richard eds. LGBT Issues: Looking Beyond Catagories. Policy & Practice in Health and Social Care (10) (pp. 16-29)
ISBN : 9781906716059 | Publisher : Dunedin Academic Press | Published : Edinburgh
The art of geographic interpretation: Making sense of qualitative data (2009-10)
MacKian, Sara
In: DeLyser, Dydia; Aitken, Stuart; Crang, Mike; Herbert, Steve and McDowell, Linda eds. The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research in Human Geography
ISBN : 9781412919913 | Publisher : Sage | Published : UK
Complex cultures: rereading the story about health and social capital (2008)
MacKian, Sara C.
In: Gupta, K. R.; Svendsen, Gunnar Lind Haase and Maiti, Prasenjit eds. Social Capital (Vol. 2) (pp. 110-134)
ISBN : 9788126909568 | Publisher : Atlantic | Published : New Delhi
Spaces of Spirituality (2018)
Bartolini, Nadia; MacKian, Sara and Pile, Steve eds.
Routledge Research in Culture, Space and Identity
ISBN : 978-1-138-22606-7 | Publisher : Routledge | Published : London
Leading, Managing, Caring: Understanding Leadership and Management in Health and Social Care (2013)
MacKian, Sara and Simons, Joan eds.
ISBN : 9780415658515 | Publisher : Routledge in association with The Open University | Published : Abingdon
Health Literacy and the Framing of Health Messages in the Gay Community. Final Report to ESRC (2008)
Goldring, J.; Bellaby, P. and MacKian, S.
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
EBL from the very first day: developing new senses of place (2007)
Dodge, Martin; Jayne, Mark; Perkins, Chris; MacKian, Sara and Smyth, Fiona
University of Manchester, Manchester.


OU student wins Care Apprentice Award

Heather always wanted to be a mental health nurse, having worked as a carer for a number of years. When she was given the chance by her employer to study for an Open University course in Health Care Practise, she grabbed the opportunity. Earlier this year, Heather was awarded the Care Apprentice Award at the National Care Awards, as Carers Week begins, she talks about her journey with The OU.

10th June 2019
See all

Are you already an OU student?

Go to StudentHome

Request your prospectus

Request a prospectus icon

Explore our qualifications and courses by requesting one of our prospectuses today.

Request prospectus