Medical Humanities as an Intersection: Fostering Cross-Disciplinary Intellectual Spaces, A Commentary

This week, we are featuring a commentary on the medical humanities, which first appeared this week here on The Daily Dose blog. This piece explores the nature of interdisciplinary research on the social, cultural, and experiential dimensions of medicine. It also spotlights the new Medicine, Society & Culture initiatives at Case Western Reserve University.


 

When I set out to write this commentary, I first intended on penning a blog piece about my own definition of the medical humanities as someone trained in both the humanities and the social sciences. Having come to medical anthropology from a past life in literary studies, my work has straddled the fissure between humanities and qualitative social sciences. I have presented work both on the history and theatrical presence of anatomical learning in the English Renaissance, and on my ethnographic research with medical students in the gross anatomy lab today. Sometimes, my work is focused solely on the present; in other instances, I turn to the historical past to inform my work as a scholar of contemporary medical training. My vision of the medical humanities is one that arrives from both within and beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries.

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My approach, however, is but one. I recognize that the medical humanities do not offer a single or unified outlook on human health, illness, and medical practice. In fact, the medical humanities are populated by historians and artists, poets and literary scholars, philosophers and social scientists. Our individual professional identities may be firm—I identify now as an ethnographer and anthropologist, not a literary scholar—but the social, cultural, historical, experiential, and existential study of medicine is simply too complex to be dominated by a single field. The medical humanities (and its ally, social medicine), welcomes perspectives on the humanistic study of medicine informed by our varied native disciplines. More than a single field, the medical humanities often serve as a crossroads: an intellectual intersection (physical, virtual, or social) at which scholars across fields gather in dialogue, whether they identify with a single specialty or as interdisciplinary scholars. For this reason, and regardless of disciplinary allegiances, we can all benefit from the medical humanities as a site of discussion that welcomes myriad voices. Diverse perspectives encourage us to analyze human health and medical problems from numerous angles. As we all carry with us our own analytical methods and theories to this junction, so too do we leave these dialogues having ourselves learned and gained the critical perspectives of our peers. This sharpens our focus anew on social, cultural, and medical problems for which one discipline lacks all answers.

The value of the medical humanities is that they enable all of us to see medical and social problems through multiple lenses. If we cannot fully grasp a complex medical problem through ethnography alone, we turn to historical approaches to complete our understanding of the issue at hand. If individual illness narratives beg to be woven together through other data, we look to sociology and economics to conceptualize the underlying health inequities faced by diverse populations, amongst other socio-medical problems. And, further, when we strive to understand how medical science is confronting illness and suffering today, we turn to nurses, social workers, therapists, physicians, and other health professionals whose day-to-day interaction with patients is deeply informative for our own research. Indeed, clinicians also benefit from our work: the humanities have been widely integrated into coursework for physicians in the United Kingdom[1] and the United States[2]. While obstacles remain in the creation and implementation of medical humanities curricula for future medical practitioners[3], this coursework has widened the intellectual space in which medical humanists exchange ideas with multiple audiences.

Whether medical humanities programs are physically housed within humanities departments, or whether they are exported into numerous health education venues, they remain a space for invaluable cross-disciplinary conversation. I have been fortunate to serve as the administrative coordinator of a medical humanities and social medicine collaborative that has overcome departmental boundaries in creating a new space for scholarly dialogue. This new university-wide initiative in medical humanities and social medicine (MHSM) is anchored by a Bioethics MA degree track entitled Medicine, Society and Culture at Case Western Reserve University. Though the degree program is housed in the School of Medicine, our MHSM (Medical Humanities and Social Medicine) advisory committee (which oversees university-wide activities in medical humanities[4]) includes historians, philosophers, literary scholars, social scientists, rhetoricians, and many others. Across the university, we facilitate lectures, administer competitive conference and research grants for students, and support faculty scholarship and teaching innovation. In the region, we collaborate with neighboring institutions to spearhead events that bring together scholars in all disciplines to discuss common themes in the social and contextual study of medicine, illness, and human health. In addition, we look forward to welcoming our first entering class of graduate students in the Medicine, Society, and Culture track in the Bioethics graduate program this Fall 2016. These students will complete clinical rotations, bioethics coursework, and multidisciplinary training in medical humanities and social medicine.

In sum, the Medicine, Society and Culture initiative has become another significant intersection at which scholars—both practicing academics and new graduate students alike—are able to trade theories, exchange methods, and discuss contemporary intellectual issues with fellow medical humanists and social scientists. Thus, our program seeks to both produce new scholars who approach illness and medicine as inherently multi-faceted human experiences, and to facilitate dialogues with current scholars within various departments who strive to complicate their own understandings of health and the human condition.

Beyond university programming, however, there are many ways that all medical humanities scholars strive—and should continue—to reach across departments and disciplines to share our methods, theories, approaches, and reflections on medicine with one another. This blog is one such space that beautifully forges virtual connections across academic audiences with a shared interest in health, illness, and medical practice. My own field, medical anthropology, by its nature requires researchers to inform their claims through many kinds of data that necessitate several forms of analysis: all which dovetail approaches in other fields. So too did my previous training in literary studies require me to be conversant in historical methods, in close reading techniques, and in the same inductive reasoning skills that I now apply to my ethnographic work. No discipline is an intellectual island: and if there is a universal value of the medical humanities, it is that it has made junctures out of disparate disciplines. It is at once clinical, scientific, and humanistic.


 

About the Author: Julia Knopes is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Case Western Reserve University, and serves as the administrative coordinator for the newly-launched MA Track in Medicine, Society & Culture in the CWRU Department of Bioethics. Julia’s research examines the socio-material basis of professional role development amongst American medical students. She holds an MA in Humanities from the University of Chicago and a BA in English from Washington & Jefferson College. You can learn more about Julia’s work and current research here.

References

[1] Macnaughton, Jane. (2000). “The humanities in medical education: context, outcomes and structures.” Journal of Medical Ethics: Medical Humanities 26: 23-30.

[2] Hunter, KM; Charon, Rita; Coulehan, Jack. (1995). “The study of literature in medical education.” Academic Medicine 70(9): 787-794.

[3] Shapiro, Johanna; Coulehan, Jack; Wear, Delese; Montello, Martha. (2009). “Medical Humanities and Their Discontents: Definitions, Critiques, and Implications.” Academic Medicine 84(2): 192-198.

[4] Information on members of the CWRU MHSM advisory committee can be found here: http://case.edu/medicine/msc/about/advisory-committee/

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