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Studying Medicine in the Humanities

At the most recent Andrey Poletayev Memorial Readings held by the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities (IGITI), participants discussed the relationship between the natural sciences and the social sciences. HSE Professor Elena Vishlenkova tells us why scholars in the humanities are interested in the natural sciences and what contribution they can make to this field.  

The Poletayev Memorial Readings occur in the form of an annual conference carried out by the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities in honour of one of the institute’s founders, Andrey Poletayev.

Why the Natural Sciences

Collaboration between the humanities and the non-humanities serves as a general ‘umbrella’ for the research our institute has been conducting over the past several years. It allows us to monitor the research arena in Russia and around the world due to the popularity the field has gained. But because you cannot cover everything in just one conference, we have broken up the umbrella topic into different segments. Last year, the main focus was on the dialogue between the ‘exact’ sciences and the ‘natural sciences.’ Next year, the discussion will centre on research revolutions. And this year, we have decided to concentrate on medicine.

Medicine as a human science is very closely related to the sociological sphere and the humanities. We have one research subject – people. But we have traditionally used methods closer to art and culture, while others use methods of the natural and exact sciences. Research today, however, is such that we are unable to study social or cultural history in its purest form, and we are no longer able to be exclusively historians or exclusively sociologists. Methodologies are becoming so intertwined that we are no longer able to talk about disciplinary or even interdisciplinary. For each research topic, the researcher selects his or her own methodology and theory from a pool of other research disciplines. We are creating a tool that suits a specific research subject, and to do this we of course need to have a dialogue with specialists from the field of medical history and the natural sciences.

VI Poletayev Memorial Readings. IGITI Deputy Director Elena Vishlenkova and IGITI Director Irina Savelieva

The Medicalization and Pathological Inclination of Modern Society

Today’s society is extremely ‘medicalized.’ Lacking a medical degree or medical background, we read esoteric medical texts, check doctors’ recommendations and prescription instructions, look up symptoms online, closely keep up with pharmaceutical and genetic discoveries, and adopt the necessary professional lexicon to use in everyday conversation. In short, people now use certain medical concepts to define the world around them.

We have gotten used to hearing about bipolar disorder, depression, hysteria, and panic attacks. It would appear that mental illness has turned from something that one aims to hide into something fashionable and modern. A certain demand has arisen for panic attacks, neurodermatitis, and even diabetes. Specialists are talking about modern society’s pathological inclination and how it is constructing an identity based on illness-related features. 

Some complain about today’s degenerate youth, and others – about the cruelties that healthy people face

And this is drastically changing behavioural models and generational relations. Unlike the younger digital generation, the parents and grandparents of this generation were raised on Soviet ideals that cultivated sports and promoted soldier-like bodies to house a ‘healthy spirit.’ Today, however, it seems that we are living with a paradoxical and contradictory view of the norm. Some complain about today’s degenerate youth, and others – about the cruelties that healthy people face. An anti-ableism movement has arisen in response to discrimination against the disabled and extreme medicalization, and biopower is something that not only philosophers now know about.

It is not only society that is changing, but medicine as well. Medicine is regulated by new cultural norms and social agreements. One example is the conversational style between doctors and patients, which is slowly deteriorating. Sociologists and anthropologists have made considerable efforts to show how medical language, terminology, and prescriptions written in Latin are used to oppress, coerce, and dominate.

In this way, medical issues have now firmly established themselves within the social sciences, and in turn research on these issues is reflected in the activities of medical practitioners.

A Historical View of Medicine

Medicine is an empirical science and is therefore closely related to history. The field has developed into what it is today through observation and the creation of small ‘stories.’ Russian physicians, for example, have their own way of writing medical records, which Elena Berger, a participant of the Poletayev Readings, has discussed in an excellent article she published. These records would not only contain a description of body ailments, but also family stories, evidence of social conflict, details on daily life, and ethnic and religious rituals. The more stories a doctor had in his personal archive, the better his reputation was. Experienced doctors left these texts to medical schools and hospitals, and they were closely analysed and used to move science forward as a whole.

Not only are researchers in the humanities drifting towards the natural sciences, but members of the natural sciences community are actively mastering fields such as sociology, philology, and history

Doctors have always been creating a ‘large history’ of medicine. This was a way of making sense of the dead ends ones might encounter in the field. Today, the history of medicine is an influential discipline. For a long time it existed in the form of a heroic story about great doctors and their discoveries, and this is the form in which medical history was taught to first-year medical students as a way of making them proud of their profession.

But the situation is now changing.  Not only are researchers in the humanities drifting towards the natural sciences, but members of the natural sciences community are actively mastering fields such as sociology, philology, and history.

In my opinion, the only noticeable difference with today’s medical historians who do not have a medical background lies in the questions they ask and the broader contexts in which they operate. When we study the medical profession, we are interested in not only this group’s internal development, but also their participation in the transformation of the country, that is, doctors’ newfound ability to be the experts. Examples include assessing how officials and entire industries work to maintain the public’s health, as well as achieving legislative changes.

Researchers of cultural history are studying how views shift in regards to health and illnesses (including ‘noble’ ones such as gout and ‘shameful’ ones like STDs or epilepsy). And like doctors, historians are studying methods of diagnosis and treatment, as well as the sanitary norms of various eras, though they rarely use their findings to start a dialogue on scientific progress. Scholars of the humanities are typically more interested in the ‘grassroots’ of medical culture, in addition to people’s quality of life and folk medicine.

VI Poletayev Memorial Readings. Professor Karl Hall of the Central European University (Budapest), Director of the Institute for the History of Science and Medicine and University of Lübeck (Germany) Professor Cornelius Borck, and Queen Mary University of London Professor Galin Tihanov

The Story of the Person Who Ate, Drank, Fell Ill, and Grew Old

We now live more prosperously, comfortably, and cleanly than our ancestors, and we are much less likely to die young. This was the subject of a paper written by Sergey Zatravkin (Russian Academy of Medical Sciences) on the ‘medical police,’ a system of governmental measures that aimed to protect the health of citizens. Zatravkin paints a vivid picture of the hardships 17th-18th century urban Europeans faced due to uncleanliness, odour, and epidemic. He also showed some of the radical changes that occurred in the lives of city-dwellers thanks to an alliance of medical professionals and enlightened governmental bodies. Such a union gave Europeans clean drinking water, drainage systems, and urban boulevards. In addition, church squares no longer served as cemeteries and knackeries, and the streets were cleared of trash and other waste. At the same time, people were forced to bathe, change clothes, and brush their teeth.

When we show the positive and negative consequences of the phenomena or ideas being studied, we ideally hope to fix and improve the current state of affairs

Many are currently writing about bioethics, and it is particularly in this field that the interests of doctors and sociologists align. Historians have not been able to show the long-term consequences of spreading false ideas such as those concerning race, cognition, or psychology. This is the focus of an entire array of articles and papers written by University of Illinois at Chicago Professor Marina Mogilner, who is an invited researcher with IGITI.

Historians are very interested in psychiatry as a regressive control mechanism. This subject is still being studied using mostly the efforts of psychiatrists and administrative documentation. It is difficult to use the archives of clinics and specialized institutes, however, due to difficulties with deciphering ‘coded’ medical records.

This is why researchers in the humanities have various types of ‘entrance points.’ Their study of the field has drastically changed the core meaning of this science for doctors. It is ceasing to be a way of entering into the profession, and it is no longer a chain of great biographies. It is now not so much a history of medicine as a structural part of ‘biohistory’ in which humans are the main subject of the past instead of institutions, processes, or establishments. It is a story about a person who ate, drank, fell ill, and grew old. It is an interesting read and leaves everyone in a positive mood.

How Does Society Benefit from This Research?

This type of research benefits people’s lives through diagnostics and treatments – not of the body, but of the social consciousness and imagination. This is perhaps more difficult and requires long-term collective efforts. When we show the positive and negative consequences of the phenomena or ideas being studied, we ideally hope to fix and improve the current state of affairs – that is, free contemporaries of social aggression, move doctors to monitor their communication style with patients, see the products of historical circumstances in our perception of various illnesses, destroy stereotypes, and sharpen personal responsibility. This is probably why doctors are surprisingly welcoming of historians and are prepared to cooperate with them.


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