Research Group for Health, History and Culture

Introduction

In 1959 the novelist, C.P. Snow, provoked a storm of protest when he alleged a breakdown in communication between the ‘two culture’ of modern society, the arts and the sciences. Nowhere are the implications of this split more telling than in health and healthcare where the art of practice has been increasingly overshadowed by science and technology.

Although scientific developments have brought many benefits, they have also reduced care and treatment to their measurable components and, in the process, undermined the importance attached to individuals, families and communities. As a result, patients may become dissatisfied with the services that they receive and practitioners may become disillusioned as they fail to fulfil their professional aspirations.

RGHHC - D Turner(Image:  Wellcome Library, London)

The Research Group for Health, History and Culture seeks to understand these problems by reinstating the arts and humanities. Founded by Professor Anne Borsay and Professor David Turner in 2010 as a joint initiative between the College of Human and Health Sciences and the College of Arts and Humanities, the Group brings together researchers who apply the concepts and/or methods of history, literature and the visual arts to the analysis of health and healthcare.

Activities cluster around three main themes:

1.       Disability, trauma and the body

Disability is fundamental to the human condition and is not solely of interest to the impaired themselves or their carers or advocates. Questions relating to physical stigma and disability belong not just to medicine, but to humanistic scholarship as a whole, asking what it means to be human, how we can respond ethically to difference and how different societies have given value to human life. The related topic of trauma, which includes life-changing physical events (such as loss of a limb), domestic and political violence, war and natural disaster, also raises crucial questions about mental health and human rights.

2.        Power, knowledge and healthcare 

Interactions between political and professional power, expert medical knowledge, and the practice of providing healthcare, constitute a crucial nexus that we investigate in a range of historical and contemporary contexts. Medical thinking, diagnosis and treatment have always had a significant relationship to the political regime within which doctors and experts worked. Power in turn has often been constituted by medical knowledge itself, in the definitions of health and disease, and in the therapeutic methods adopted by healthcare practitioners. Practices of healthcare feed back into the development of new medical knowledge, and contribute to the medicalization of politics.

3.       Patients, professionals and narratives

How do people make sense of health, illness or disability? This research strand takes a phenomenological approach by exploring first-person accounts of illness and disability, looking at how experiences are constructed via a variety of testimonies. In what ways do patient narratives create new scripts for understanding sickness? Exploring patient perspectives allows us to challenge the medical world’s objective account of disease that reduces it to a set of symptoms acting upon the body and encourages practitioners to listen to the voices of the sick or disabled.

The Group is committed to demonstrating the impact of its research for policy and practice, for healthcare users and for the general public.