What kind of artefact is the lived body?

I found the description of the theme of this conference and the questions raised to be thought provoking and worth sharing:

Practices and their Bodies. What Kind of Artefact is the Lived Body?

  • Transdisciplinary Conference, April 25th-27th 2013, University of Mainz (Germany)
  • Keynote Speakers (confirmed): Chris Shilling (University of Kent), Annemarie Mol (University of Amsterdam), Paul Stoller (West Chester University), Gesa Lindemann (University of Oldenburg) und Martin Dinges (University of Mannheim).

The human body as the subject of research still sits very firmly in the grasp of the natural sciences. Nevertheless, cultural studies and social sciences have put forward two fundamental insights on the body vis-à-vis established biomedical knowledge. Firstly, both anthropological and phenomenological approaches have delved into the inner perspective of our inhabited bodies by viewing the ‘lived body’  as the foundation of all cognition and as the fundamental site of sensory perception, personality, and subjectivity. Secondly, ethnological and historical semantic studies have shed light on the extreme variability of ‘the body’ subject to societal knowledge regimes. Human bodies span an infinite plurality of cultural classifications and historical discourses – a bundle of linguistic categories, medical imaging, interpretation and explanation patterns. Our natural scientific knowledge of the body is part of historically and culturally specific ethnosemantics.

This conference proposes a third fundamental sociocultural way of viewing the body, namely as a component of material culture. In recent years the term practices has oftentimes been used to express this perspective – a conception of human action and behaviour that places controlled bodily movement at the centre of social life. As a part of material culture the body is without doubt an artefact. It has limited capabilities, is practically shaped by food, medicine, and socialisation, and wears out through practical use. However, it is a special material thing: it can learn, i.e., through usage it is materially (re)shaped, disciplined, and is impregnated with habits, and it can specialise in body techniques: instrumental music, handicraft, sports, martial arts, and sex, to just name a handful of such specialisation possibilities. Continue reading

Envision conference at OU, October 19

Seems that information like this never reaches other departments in time, but it should still be possible to register for this interesting conference to be held in Rochester next month. Student registrations are free but limited; I haven’t gotten a response to my registration request yet, but it’s worth a try if you want to go. (Update: I was able to get a student seat for the conference, but it sounds like space is tight.)

This conference will explore the question: Do mental health issues manifest into chronic physical problems, or does the chronic illness create significant and long-lasting impairment of an individual’s mental health? Participants will learn how nurses and mental health professionals can better understand the magnitude of this issue and collaborate to provide patients timely, appropriate and effective services while safeguarding basic human rights. Additionally, participants will learn how they can decrease their own depression, compassion fatigue and improve job satisfaction through mindfulness, laughter and other alternative techniques.

Approximately 25% of the general population (adults) have diagnosed mental health disorders (though this is most likely grossly underestimated because of the stigma often associated with mental illness) while about 58% of the general adult population have been diagnosed with at least one medical condition. (Robert Wood Johnson, Synthesis Project)

When it comes to the complexity of health care, the line often blurs between physical and mental health. Today, the interaction between physical and mental illnesses is a necessity not an exception. This results in an increased need for health care workers to gain a broader understanding of working with patients who suffer from co-existing physical and mental illnesses. This year’s Envision Conference will offer a broader understanding in “THE COMPLEXITY OF CO-MORBIDITY: CONNECTING WITH OTHERS THROUGH THE SYNTHESIS OF MIND, BODY AND SPIRIT” taking place on October 19th at the Royal Park Hotel in Rochester, MI.


  • Complexity of Comorbidity and its Implications: Sharon Freeman, PhD, Freeman Institute for Cognitive Therapy
  • Mindfulness in Care (for Caregiver and Patient): Bup Chon Sunim (Brent Eastman), Buddhist Monk
  • Relationship-Based Care: Kathleen Van Wagoner, Chief Nursing Officer, Crittenton Hospital Medical Center
  • Spirituality, Suffering and Illness: Lessons Learned from Research, Clinical Families and Living Life: Lorraine Wright, International Lecturer and Professor Emeritus of Nursing, University of Calgary
  • with a mini lunch demonstration on the Power of Laughter: Paul McGhee, PhD, Lecturer

Location:Royal Park Hotel
600 East University Drive
Rochester, MI 48307

Cost: $125 per person. Register here.
Students are free! (Student space is limited and you must pre-register!)

Students – please do not register online. Pre-register by contacting Cynthia Rutledge at carutled@oakland.edu or at 248-370-3799 to be added as an attendee. Whether you’re a student at Oakland University or another institution, you must provide a valid student ID to be admitted to the conference.

Applying proxemics to the healthcare experience

Margaret Alrutz is the director of strategic marketing and experience design at Nurture by Steelcase — a company that provides furniture for medical settings.  In her talk at the Mayo Center for Innovation Transform 2012 symposium, she spoke about how the technology and practices of healthcare have changed, but the spaces have not been improved.  Citing the work of anthropologist Edward T. Hall, Alrutz described the research put into product design at Nurture, which included observing medical personnel as they actually performed their duties, often awkwardly as in the photo below:

Image from Margaret Alrutz’s presentation

The core content of her talk begins at about the 3:30 mark in the video:

While Nurture’s upscale furniture addresses first world healthcare inconvenience and unpleasantness, these research concepts can be applied elsewhere and one could argue that improving staff ergonomics and comfort for visitors would lead to better patient outcomes in many situations.  I can think of several personal medical experiences where details of my surroundings made a significant impact on the level of anxiety I felt.

The Nurture website has a number of case studies which outline problems they’ve tackled and the methodology that they used to find solutions, including observation, surveys, and interviews.  That sounds awfully anthropological, doesn’t it?

Lecture on concepts of embodiment in Appalachian women

Mark your calendars for this lecture! (via News at OU)

Friday, Oct. 12
Noon to 1 p.m. in Oakland Center Gold Room C

Between the River and the Railroad Tracks: Speaking Marginal Bodies to Central Spaces in Appalachian Ohio

Using life history research, Dr. Rebecca Mercado-Thornton, assistant professor of communication, will examine the scarcely told experiences of Appalachian women living in Appalachia, Ohio. Focused on the life histories of three women, the talk will trace the ways in which these women resist and undermine traditional conceptions of embodiment.

What isn’t an epidemic?

Ben’s post on violence, and my response, have got me thinking about one of the (many) questions we raised in class but never really answered: does it always make sense to think of health concerns driven by behavior (rather than, say, microbes) as epidemics? We see this all the time in the media and in the academic literature: the obesity and tobacco epidemics, most famously.  And then there are a host of “epidemics” of behaviors that have been medicalized or psychopathologized to fit into the disease model, but I’m pretty sure it would have sounded absurd to refer to them as epidemics until fairly recently: sex addiction, for example.

What are the problems with using the label “epidemic”? Should the term be potentially applied to any set of behaviors that lead to adverse health consequences, or are there limits? We have discussed some examples where it seems more productive to think of behavior in terms of epidemics even when we may find that behavior abhorrent: needle exchange programs have been very successful in limiting the spread of AIDS and hepatitis, for example, even if some feel that they condone illegal behavior.  The term is also a useful way of undermining the medical tendency to blame the patient: as we know, behavior occurs within a socioeconomic context (cf. structural violence), pretty much every disease results from a complex interaction between behavior and pathogens, and many forms of behavior have a genetic component.  Maybe there are good reasons to use the blanket term “epidemic” to erase the distinction between passive (victim) and active (deviant or unsanitary citizen) when we talk about health.

But there are political consequences of the “epidemic” label as well: to use a current example, Bloomberg has been using the term to justify his attack on soft drinks in New York.  Whether we agree with the soft drink ban or not, it raises the question of how far government control of the behavior of its citizens should extend in the name of addressing a public health concern… and has some uncomfortable resonances with the state-of-exception, war-on-terror rhetoric used to justify the erosion of civil liberties post-9/11.  If violence is an epidemic, should we get rid of the Second Amendment in order to reduce the virulence of the disease?

Thoughts? Can you think of a recent “epidemic” that you don’t think merits the name? This one, maybe? Where and why do you draw the line?

An ongoing Asperger’s narrative

There’s a common theme in much of the writing I enjoy: personal narratives from smart, introspective, odd people.  That’s why I can’t resist Penelope Trunk.  Penelope founded three start-up companies, wrote a bestselling career advice book, and she’s now homeschooling her children and making goat cheese.  She also has Asperger’s Syndrome and she speaks about her mental processes and challenges in clear, explicit posts like “Why I’m difficult in meetings” and “What it’s like to have sex with someone with Asperger’s“.

Penelope Trunk

Penelope can be controversial and shocking in her directness, and her blog mixes career advice, trendspotting, and her personal life.  It also provides a chance to see the world through the eyes of someone whose perspective may be very different from most of ours, described vividly and intelligently.  Worth a look.

A Cure for Violence

Hi everyone:

I hope your weekend is going fan-tastic! For my first post, I found a story on violence and an age-old question tied to it… is is possible to stop violence before it occurs? Is there a cure for violence? I find it utterly fascinating, especially coming from a Sociology background. I hope you enjoy it.


Ever since Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down came out in 1998, Lia Lee, the epileptic child of Hmong refugees, has been the most famous cautionary tale in America of the cultural gap between patients and their doctors.  After a short life lived almost entirely in a vegetative state, Lia Lee passed away at the end of last month.  The New York Times has a brief summary of her experience caught between two radically different understandings of her condition, and the impacts of her case on medical training and hospital policy.

Lia Lee in 1988
(c) Anne Fadiman via The New York Times

Here and abroad, two articles on prevention

Two articles caught my eye today.  The first is on some of the experimental programs coming out of the Affordable Care Act to design effective community prevention.  But since we don’t see a lot of evidence that awareness-raising campaigns can work in and of themselves, new approaches are being tried out.  The article points to distrust of the government, the short-term thinking that results from living in poverty, and easy access to less healthy food as some of the reasons why preventable disease continues to be the leading cause of death in America.

It’s instructive to compare this article to a recent study on the factors leading to maternal mortality in India.  Summarized nicely here, researchers from the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the University of Aberdeen looked at the success of a recent government program (JSY), a conditional cash-transfer program meant to create incentives for women to go to hospitals to give birth.  What looks like thoughtful qualitative work revealed that “good care” looks different to Indian women than it does in many other cultural contexts.  Moreover, the structural constraints women face are so great that cash incentives are not likely to change maternal mortality rates dramatically: many women don’t have the right to choose when they want to get pregnant and where they will deliver, and one in three women said they couldn’t go to hospitals because there was no one to look after other children at home.

ONE campaign video about Benin is actually good!

I’ve gotten so used to Benin getting totally ignored (or when it is mentioned in world media at all, getting reduced to a few tired stereotypes) that I didn’t have high hopes for this documentary about one of my favorite topics: the increasingly collaborative relationship between traditional healers and doctors.  But it’s actually really good!  This video is part of a campaign to raise awareness and funds for badly needed vaccines in the country.