Medical Humanities Collaborations

I recently joined the School of English and Languages at the University of Surrey after holding a postdoctoral fellowship at the Centre for Women’s and Gender Research (SKOK) at the University of Bergen, Norway. My research activities in Bergen included a focus on establishing a foundation for the medical humanities both at SKOK and more broadly in Norway. As part of this agenda, I recently worked collaboratively with the University of Surrey, the University of Bergen and the Nordic Network for Gender, Body, Health to organise a medical humanities and gender workshop in Bergen in September. The main aim was to examine the role of gender in the medical humanities, address whether gender and feminist research are absent as analytical modes of enquiry, and explore the potential links across multiple disciplines.

The event began with a talk about music therapy and the often common assumption that people in therapy lack agency and that learning works only in one direction (from practitioner to client). This paper challenged these ideas showing how patients and clients are informed users of such services and often excellent musicians. Therefore framed by critical feminist discussions around agency, clinics, art, selfhood, care and, indeed, what is the medical humanities, the event included papers on violence in emergency care settings, prostheses, ageing in literature, relationality in Alzheimer’s, right to die campaigns, organ transplantation in fiction, the feminist debate around nature and nurture, bariatric surgery, and the WHO’s policies on HIV transmission. This was an interdisciplinary event that included researchers from the humanities, medicine, clinical contexts and the social sciences. We tried to speak through and across our disciplinary differences, exploring what could be gained from such dialogues and whether a lack of understanding can be a tool for developing our thinking and our practices.

This events captures how the medical humanities offers one way of exploring the potential of interdisciplinary research and of giving recognition to the need to develop language and skills to be able to communicate across our own subjects, interests and methods. While we might imagine that medical practitioners see only a utilitarian use for art, or that literary scholars know little about medical practice, what this event shows is that we can speak to each other and that we do have significant overlaps. For example: an anthropologist spoke about recognising the connections between her research and the methods used in literary analysis, where close textual readings may open up the possibility for reinterpreting dominant medical models or experiences of health and illness; a philosophical engagement with Alzheimer’s brought an important dimension to rethinking selfhood when formulating models of care; and music therapy captures a line where we see art as not reduced to a service, but as a form that facilitates expression in ways that words cannot.

I have worked in medical humanities for many years, in Helsinki, Glasgow and Leeds, and taken part in numerous events, and this event builds on what I’ve learned from seeing how medical practitioners, artists, academics and a more general public may actually work collaboratively. As a result, many of us have already started planning how as artists, practitioners and academics we could come together next year. This may be an event with a focus on Alzheimer’s, or even a broader event on disability and art.

When I started thinking about this event, the aim was to see what research was going on in Norway in the medical humanities, and certainly not everyone who came to the workshop works under the label of the medical humanities. Many of us were and are in so-called traditional disciplines. Yet what it showed is the rich research going on under this broad umbrella term, the potential for exciting collaborations, and the centrality of feminist and gender research to thinking bodies, health and illness. The day ended with the launch of the Nordic Network for Gender, Body, Health, which has recently moved from Uppsala, Sweden, to SKOK in Bergen. It is certain that in 2016 the Network will be working with the people at this event to develop future connections and projects, and that an event will take place to build on this small step towards thinking medical humanities with feminist and gender research.

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