Call for Papers (AAA 2017) - Re-examining Medical Narratives

Shana Harris's picture


Panel at 2017 American Anthropological Association Conference — November 29 - December 3 in Washington, D.C.


Re-examining Medical Narratives: The Uses, Limits, and Politics of “Storytelling”



Theresa MacPhail (Stevens Institute of Technology) -

Shana Harris (University of Central Florida) –


It’s a commonplace, by now, to argue that humans are inherently narrative creatures. We naturally, or so the tale goes, tell stories about ourselves, our experiences, and our worlds. It is supposedly through these repeated acts of “storytelling” that the self itself emerges. As anthropologists, we traffic in narratives, collecting stories in the field only to write about or retell them in our ethnographies. Ethnography itself, at least since the publication of the edited volume Writing Culture, can be conceived of as just another type of narrative, one that combines the stories of ethnographers and their subjects in order to craft a larger story about the worlds in which we live. As James Clifford argues in that canonical text, ethnography is “emplotted by powerful stories” – stories that “describe real cultural events and make additional, moral, ideological, and even cosmological statements.” This panel seeks to reopen the debate over “writing culture” by paying close attention to the use of “patient stories” within the fields of medicine, medical anthropology, and the growing body of literature that might best be captured under the umbrella term of “medical humanities.” 

For over three decades, beginning in earnest with the publication of Arthur Kleinman’s seminal work, The Illness Narratives, medical anthropologists have embraced the recording, retelling, and critical examination of patient narratives as a way to theorize the body, the mind, biomedicine, medical technologies, health, illness, recovery, life, and death. Indeed, the push to encourage, gather, and interpret patient’s personal stories has been so successful that many medical schools now require doctors-in-training to take at least one class that helps them learn to more effectively “interpret” and empathize with their patients’ oral and written medical histories. Stories, from this perspective, are assumed to carry personal and social meaning, providing a window into the “authentic” subjective experience of illness and healing. Patient “storytelling,” then, becomes a means by which physicians, anthropologists, and health writers alike may better advocate for social, political, and economic ends.

This panel seeks to explore the politics of patient narratives by focusing on their uses, limitations, and moments of breakdown. Philosopher Galen Strawson challenges narrativity as an organizing feature of all lived experience, arguing for the recognition and inclusion of non-narrative or “episodic” life experiences as equally meaningful to the human experience. Sociologist Paul Atkinson provocatively suggests that personal narratives are no more “real” or “valid” than other types of data and that giving “stories” analytical primacy transforms ethnography from a rigorous method into a romanticized “ethical concern for the integrity of the person and the bibliographically grounded experience.” What are the ethics of telling and retelling patient narratives in the 21st century? What happens when patients’ experiences do not “fit” neatly into narrative? How is meaning produced or negotiated non-narratively? What work do patient narratives do in clinical settings or the public sphere? Does the value of patient narratives vary by therapeutic space?  What are the challenges of working with such narratives in different ethnographic contexts? Are anthropologists storytellers, story-analysts, or both?

We invite abstracts for papers that ethnographically explore these questions and analyze or problematize the use of medical narratives and storytelling in clinical or other healing spaces.  Please submit an abstract (250 words max.) to the panel organizers by SUNDAY, MARCH 26, for full consideration.