International Conference "Medical Diversity and its Spaces”

International Conference: Medical Diversity and its Spaces Conference proposal

Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Department of Socio-Cultural Diversity 28. -29.3. 2011

Conference organisers: Gabi Alex, Kristine Krause, David Parkin

The Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen is dedicated to research in the new complexities, and new dimensions of diversification throughout the world. The department of Socio-Cultural Diversity of the institute and its focus group on Medical Diversity invites selected scholars working in different fields, including life science, pharmaceutical studies, global health, science and technology studies, medical pluralism, religion and medicine, and history of medicine in order to explore a contemporary study of processes of diversification.

With this broad range of perspectives, we aim to explore 'medical diversity and its spaces' through three topics: innovation, borrowing, and crises. Assuming that medical knowledge and therapeutic practices, as well as being subject to mainstreaming and standardisation, are subject to processes of diversification, which may or may not be related to comparable processes in other social fields, we invite scholars to explore the following questions:

  1. How are disparities produced within medical fields and practices by processes of innovation, commodification, borrowing, movement and invention?
  2. How do medical practices try to order and tame new social, economic and cultural distinctions by medicalising them, or in the reverse by re-defining medical knowledge and conditions as social?
  3. Where do medical and healing practices produce new diversities through schemes of classification and measurement?
  4. When and how do medical practices and knowledge traditions merge and lose specificities due to mainstreaming processes taking place in jural, adminstrative and informal contexts?
  5. When and how do biotechnological innovations conjunct with new global health inequalities?

We propose to address these questions by taking a spatial perspective as the entry point, in order to ground the analysis in concrete political, social and historical contexts. We thereby suggest a broad notion of spatiality, which can include spatial power configurations, global and transnational spaces, as well as laboratories, urban structures, architecture and buildings.


Space as an entry point

We are particularly interested in looking at how medical and health-related practices are creating new spatial forms and practices on the global and local level – and how in turn the movement of therapies and personnel becomes palpable and meaningful only through specific spatial configurations. For instance, medical practices become globally widespread, and medical facilities are represented in ways that echo this dispersal. public health policies become located in new venues, and patients as well as personnel move to localities other than those in which they were established.

Medical spaces are potentially unbounded insofar as successful therapy may expand its area of operation, theymay, however, also be constrained by their positions relative to each other, through competition, separate specialisations, positioning in medical markets, and, in some cases, mutual merging of therapeutics. Medical concentrations may come to be regarded as representing a particular tradition or branch of therapy. Technologies and their relative spatial ordering and creation play a crucial role in this process of medical diversification. Locations that rank lower within global power geometries are often used as sites for the harvesting or testing of new drugs, which will benefit people living in places ranking on a higher scale, thus reinforcing global health disparities. Medical architecture commonly indicates changing medical authorities and influences. Thus medical practices have spatial locations but also produce them, as when there is a concentration of medical expertise and of patients.


Topic I. Medical innovation

Innovation in general is often a product of population shifts, the intersection of socio-cultural and political boundaries, and interpersonal travel and exchange. It is premised on a dynamic exchange of knowledge, practices, persons and technologies, as new diagnoses, remedies and healers are sought and/or old ones extinguished or marginalised or, contrariwise, re-invoked. This dynamism is embedded in the shifting power relations of local and global markets, states, religions and ideologies. What are the global, local, and micro-social circumstances encouraging medical innovation in diagnosis and healing, and how do they overcome what is often medical conservatism and resistance to change?

We wish to explore such circumstances prompting the evolution and development of therapeutic practices and knowledge and invite papers that address among others the following questions: how does a series of actions become recognised and translated into the realm of the therapeutic from other social fields, often accompanied by novel vocabulary and aetiology? Which of the actions are assigned to other non-medical realms, such as the religious, and how in general is the medical separable from the non-medical? More specifically, when and how is such knowledge moveable and over what periods of time? Are there specific spaces and spatial practices that foster medical innovation? What are the conditions under which either trial-and-error or controlled scientific experimentation is possible and/or preferred, and is this in fact a valid distinction in the development of medical knowledge? To what extent do co-existing, nominally distinctive medical traditions share in such innovation?


Topic  II. Borrowing, theft and collaboration

Movements and new forms of interactions often throw together diverse healing traditions. Despite the general view of healing traditions as systems with discrete boundaries and a systematic relation of their internal parts, their different forms of knowledge and practices and their various underlying epistemologies are often related through a number of different bonds and show structures of affinity as well as variation.

These affinities are established through different modes of interaction such as borrowing, co-operation, mainstreaming, assimilation and adaptation. All these processes may be conscious, unconscious, unconcerned, acknowledged or unacknowledged.

Theories around (religious) syncretism and creolisation have looked such processes in other cultural fields and evaluated them against the background of similar processes within the wider society. Studies of globalisation, transnational interconnectedness and the transfer of biotechnologies have also explored how models, epistemes, pharmaceuticals and technologies travel and undergo processes of dis-embedding and re-imbedding, in which elements from the new environment are used in different ways.

We would like to investigate these processes against the often claimed purity of medical systems and practices and see how processes of diversification are negotiated within these different movements against notions of a “pure”, scientifically based, or “authentic” system, on the one hand, and the demands of professionalisation, efficacy and renewal on the other hand. Furthermore, we want to explore the power relations behind processes of appropriation of therapeutic forms, properties and substances, which can mark the act of "borrowing" as either legitimate collaboration or illegitimate theft.


Topic III. Crises, rituals and routinisation

Extensive changes, whether social, war related, climatic or of another nature, lead to crises and ruptures, calling for medical interventions and healing powers to prevent or to diminish epidemics and natural disasters. Health crises are thereby handled through rituals and routines, but at the same time produce new solutions and trigger innovation.

Classical writings on healing practices have stressed the mediating role of cults of affliction in social and political crises, their reconciling and re-creating effects. Scholars have also noted how sicknesses, as moments of rupture, create new socialities such as ritual communities, therapy networks and support groups. More recent work has taken on these ideas to show how public health crises, such as pandemics, not only mirror, but also produce political-social economic configurations and practices on a broader scale. HIV/AIDS, for instance, has become a motor of globalisation and diversification, creating new forms of knowledge, relationships and social-political practice.

Medical terminologies provide powerful positions to speak from for patients and clients. Based on specific bodily conditions, interpreted medically and recognized on a global scale, they serve as the basis for claiming rights, treatment and support. On the other hand, medical and therapeutic citizenship require accepting treatment-regimes and subscribing to specific norms and practices. There is also the danger of being stigmatised for a medical condition.

For this session we are interested in the diversification processes brought along by crises and in the resulting forms of routinisation and ritualisation in medical and therapeutic reactions to changes. We invite contributors to think about the routinisation of practices and the processes of friction and fusion in negotiating innovative therapeutic forms in response to crisis and rupture; to shed light on the relationship between medical and social crises; the shaping of medical subjectivities and ways of speaking about rupture and crises in therapeutic terms.