I came to the Medical Humanities Research Centre here in Glasgow well aware that the medical humanities comprise a field of study where its representatives continuously debate and discuss what their object of study really is, how research should be conducted and the overall value of this type of research. For the first time I’ve actually now had time to reflect on these questions myself, and to look more closely at different attempts to bound the field, define it, promote or criticize it.
One thing that I’ve noted is that the medical humanities are often defined in relation to medicine; it can be as an outside critical observer, as a humanizing force within medical practice, or it can be as a side-by-side companion claiming additional or complementary expertise on medically-related (but often overlooked) questions – historical, cultural, ethical, etc. But in all these cases the value of the MH, and its potential usefulness, is related to what it can offer medicine, albeit in a broad sense. But is it self-evident,that it’s medical practitioners, health care providers, or indeed patients, whom MH is for? They are included, of course. But I think the scope must be much broader. As researchers within MH bring fundamental concepts like “experience”, “representation”, “expression”, or indeed “knowledge” and “culture” to bear on medical issues, they do a good job of destabilizing the very boundaries of what we normally think of as medicine. That many disciplines within the humanities now jointly focus on medicine will hopefully lead to greater self-understanding on many different levels, inside or outside of medicine, the humanities, or the medical humanities.
It is also easy to forget that the “humanities” (and the same is true for medicine) cover a large spectrum of different traditions, perspectives, methodologies, concepts and disciplines, many of which would never subscribe to the idea that they represent (either as research areas or as researchers) a more soft, ethically sensitive, or humane approach, as compared to the so-called “dominant biomedical paradigm”. In efforts to define the MH it is as if both medicine and the humanities are shrinking, becoming caricatures of themselves. Agreed, that sort of simplification is almost unavoidable if you’re trying to communicate clearly, in just a few sentences (or less,) what the MH is all about. I resort to it myself from time to time.
The very diversity of the humanities is reason enough, at least for me personally, to primarily focus on creating environments and spaces in which people with different humanities competencies and perspectives can meet and openly share and discuss what they are doing, exchange ideas, and be open to learn from each other. We are, for the most part, specialists, and we have a long tradition of working on our own rather than in teams. So, my aspiration for the future would be to find ways for researchers and teachers within the MH to engage with each other, on our own terms. The medical humanities seminar discussion group here at Glasgow University is such a place, characterized by openness and generosity. It is open to everybody, as it should be.
After a second week in Glasgow I can state a fact: Glaswegians are nice, helpful, warm-hearted people! Wherever I go I meet people who want to help a confused little creature from the North of Sweden, like myself. It can be about finding a way through the city centre, packing the bags at the food store, or getting a library card activated. Ok, that’s what you’d expect of people everywhere, you think. But when people come up to you of their own volition, without you even asking for guidance – that is different. And when people start chatting with you spontaneously in front of a painting in the museum -that is different. When they don’t seem to mind you having to ask “pardon”, three times in a row because certain varieties of the Scottish accent are still hard for you to understand – now that is different. Not to mention the fact that women (generally those over 45) address you by saying “dear” and “love”!
It makes me think of sociologist and cultural theorist Georg Simmel’s canonical text Metropolis and Mental Life from 1903, in which he explored the idea that urban life (in his case Berlin) involved a de-sensitized, blasé attitude, caused by an overload of sensory inputs and incessant change. This description is quite the opposite of how I perceive Glaswegians. People really “see” you and treat you as a friend, almost as if you had come to a small village where everybody knows everybody. Kind of interesting.