Illness Narratives Revisited

Illness Narratives Revisited:
From the Semiotics of Language to the Materiality of Speech

International Conference, University of Oxford
6-8 December 2012

Jointly funded by MPI MMG and Green Templeton College of the University of Oxford

Organised by

the Working Group Medical Diversity at the MPI for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen together with

Medical Anthropology at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology and

The Health Experience Group in the Primary Care Department, University of Oxford

 

The study of illness narratives has been one of the most important contributions of medical anthropology to the understanding of patient’s experiences of sickness (Kleinmann, Good, Cohen). It has been used in health research to enable patients, families, carers and healthcare professionals to learn about the view of the patients, as for instance in the award-winning website of the DIPEx charity (http://www.healthtalkonline.org).

It has furthermore shed light on aesthetic and moral forms in clinical encounters which can take on narrative structures (Mattingly). Other studies on the significance of language in therapies have investigated the ways in which patients reproduce sickness categories in constructing their subjectivities (Hacking, Young), and how the appropriation of specific genres of speaking about threatening bodily states helps people to come to terms with distress and suffering (Skultans).

Non-verbal aspects of communication have been addressed by medical anthropologists who have looked into embodied forms of knowledge in healing rituals (Csordas, Lambek, Guerts) and how experts establish their authorities through specific terminologies (Hsu).

Building on this rich work, the workshop proposes to think about semiotics and the meaning of language in two different streams of inquiry. The first concerns the experiences of specific bodily conditions and how these produce particular ways of narrativisation. The second concerns language use in therapeutic settings and encounters, by including sensorial and material aspects which shape the therapeutic encounter, inclusive of the objects and layout of the space in which it takes place.

Materialities, as they have been addressed in Science and Technology Studies can include the architecture, and the technical infrastructure of therapeutic places, which produce specific ways of speaking and interacting. It can also include technological devices and pharmaceutical objects which are associated with the treatment of particular bodily conditions.

The materiality of speech can be seen referring to the prosody, rhythm and velocity of speech, taking account of the entirety of the event involving practitioners, patients and their paraphernalia. In regard to illness narratives, materiality of speech concerns the ways how the experiences of the treatment process and the embodied knowledge about the condition are related to ways of speaking about it and expressing emotions.

The workshop will ensemble presentations which combine a discussion of the meaning and semiotics of language with a focus on the situational circumstances in which people make utterances in different therapeutic settings, as well as after they have undergone treatment (including biomedical and non-biomedical) and from different theoretical and methodological angles.

By bringing together medical doctors, medical sociologists and anthropologists we aim with this workshop to create an interdisciplinary dialogue on narratives and speech in health and healing processes.