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Wellness & Disease



Mary Harrington
Mary Harrington,
Benita Jackson
Benita Jackson,



This project will consider the presence of illness and disease in our history, our culture, and our social arrangements, as well as in our mental constructions. In other words, disease will be viewed not only in epidemiological terms, but also in the ways that it insinuates itself in our psyche, our cultural imagination, and our institutions, and we will look at how we have come to habituate ourselves to it.

For example, the hold that cancer has on our cultural imagination may be as powerful as the one that it exerts on the bodies of cancer patients. While cancer looms over all of us as an incurable disease in potentia, it also exists as a powerful symbolic metaphor. Cancer can seem to lurk everywhere in our physical environment, making a risk out of the foods that we eat, the places that we work, and technological forms and processes that we have come to depend upon. Cancer sometimes seems ubiquitous, but serious diseases of all kinds punctuate the background and foreground of our everyday lives, and are treated as much by our prejudices and our moral judgments as by our medical procedures. Thus, sexually transmitted diseases impose themselves on our most intimate relations and often invite harsh moral stigma. Diseases that are born by conditions of economic poverty magnify unfairness because health and medical treatment are among the deprivations experienced by the poor.

To a certain degree, illness exists in close association with its obverse and so it cannot be fully understood apart from the ways that wellness is experienced and represented, as a state of mind, as a condition of the body, as a discursive narrative, and as a practice. In this project, we will treat states of disease and states of wellness not only as physiological and epidemiological realities, but as complex historical, psychological, and socio-cultural processes. The specific questions that will be asked about illness and wellness will, of course, be determined by the specific kinds of research being done and the intellectual inclinations of the Fellows of the project. Some may be of an epistemological nature. For example, how might our understanding of the biology of disease, including cancer, affect the experience of being ill?

We will also want to ask questions about how diseases sort themselves out in a population, in social and demographic terms, and what factors play a role in determining this. We might ask about the ways health care delivery differs across different social groups, both in U.S. society and across borders. Some may be interested in how the media influence our ideas about disease as well as the factors that influence how the media treats disease. We will want to know how our sense of well-being is shaped by the experience of being ill, such as whether surviving cancer might alter psychological identity, or the influences that shape the degree of hope and optimism or isolation and loneliness that a cancer patient might feel.

While the work of some project Fellows may be directly and explicitly related to a particular disease, others may bring research interests that focus on treatment, through traditional or alternative medical practices, practitioners, or institutions. Still others may be interested in conditions that produce health and well-being, such as improvements in environmental pollution or the process and problems of health education in more and less-developed societies, or the efficacy of movements that raise awareness of disease. Whatever questions our own intellectual backgrounds may predispose us to ask, what this project promises is an extended cross-disciplinary dialogue that will help us all think more broadly and in new ways about wellness and illness.


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