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Medical (In)humanities

  • Lead Applicant: Dr Stephanie Bird, Lecturer in German (UCL SELCS)
  • Main Collaborator: Dr Peter Zusi, Lecturer in Czech with Slovak Literature (UCL SSEES)
  • Additional Collaborators:
    Dr Mark Hewitson, Senior Lecturer in German History, UCL SELCS

    Dr Lesley Caldwell, Honorary Reader in the Psychoanalysis Unit.

    Dr Joanna Moncrieff, Senior Clinical Lecturer in the Mental Health Sciences Unit.

    Dr Sushrut Jadhev, Senior Clinical Lecturer in the Mental Health Sciences Unit.

The project ‘Medical (In)humanities’ is a multi-disciplinary exploration of the ways in which the practice and theory of medicine has undermined or consolidated notions of humane behaviour. The project is the fourth in a series of research collaborations based in the German Department (see: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/german/german/aboutus/research). The current project was conceived as one that has events central to German and Austrian history and culture at its core: the psychoanalytic interventions of Freud and Jung, and the enmeshing of inhumanity and medicine under the National Socialists. These events, themselves embedded in traditions of thought, medical practice and history that extend well beyond the German-speaking nations, have had a fundamental and far-reaching impact on how we understand the relationship between medicine and (in)humanity. We therefore plan to broaden the scope of the project, already inter-disciplinary, beyond German-related material.

The title ‘Medical (in)humanities’ is a provocative response to the field of medical humanities and is designed to explore the assumptions underlying the very notion of ‘inhumanity’ in order to define what is humane. The concept of ‘inhumanity’ can already elicit objections on philosophical and ethical grounds, just as the naïve postulation of what is ‘humane’ itself reinforces particular constructions of the human and its Other. The term ‘medical humanity’ readily aligns medical discourses with moral value and notions of the Good, but leaves open the question of whose ‘good’ is at stake. Thus ideas of the bio-political point to the modern state’s claims to control over its citizens – through medicine and medical discourse – as population and as body, whether in the Nazi camps or in the use of torture in the fight against terrorism. The ideal of ‘the good of the patient’ is inseparable from wider discourses that may directly undermine it, such as the aspirations for the universal healthy body, healthy race or healthy use of social resources. Indeed, as psychoanalytic discourse suggests, what is deemed humane always comes at a high price.

Central to the notion of medical (in)humanity is the role that empathy plays in the definitions of personhood, usually equated with human personhood. The importance of science to the understanding of the body, medicine and diagnosis has frequently displaced the role of empathy in healing. The objectification of the body as a complex mechanism, pervasive now in the growing trend to reduce the understanding of affect through neuroscience, often runs contrary to concerns in the humanities with understanding the subject’s relation to the other through empathy. This tension is also manifested within clinical practices that are medical and those that insist upon the value of therapeutic interaction to address traumatic symptoms.

The aim of the project is to open up what is already an inter-disciplinary venture to further avenues. Key areas of exploration will be political theory, history, discourses of sovereignty and subjectivity, human rights and security, trauma and empathy, ethics and medical ethics, and the interplay of medicine and culture.

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