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Gender and medical humanities

Gender and medical humanities is one of the key areas of research at the Center for Women's and Gender Research.

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Gender and medical humanities is one of the key areas of research at the Center for Women's and Gender Research (SKOK).
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Thor Brødreskift/UiB

The medical humanities is an interdisciplinary field of enquiry in which the methodologies and perspectives of the humanities, the social sciences and the arts are brought to bear upon medical education, ethics and practice. This interdisciplinary collaboration has a key role to play in analysing the role and ethics of medicine, and the relationship between medicine and broader ideas concerning health, illness, wellbeing and justice.

A focus on the humanistic side of the arts

Since its inception in the 1970s, the medical humanities has focused largely on the humanistic side of the arts by providing insight into the human condition, suffering and personhood; our responsibility for each other; and a historical perspective on medical practice. Attention to literature and the arts in this context helps to develop and nurture skills of observation, analysis, empathy, and self-reflection, specifically in the arena of medical practice. In addition, the social sciences have been deployed to understand how bioscience and medicine take place within cultural and social contexts, and thereby how culture interacts with the individual and collective experience of illness, as well as with medical practice.

The very meaning of being human

A more ambitious and recent aim, emerging from critical gender, disability, postcolonial and posthuman theories, as well as artistic work, is to challenge and refocus medical, especially biomedical, knowledge and education. Here, the medical humanities critically engages the very meaning of the human as technologies are integrated to the human form, as human parts are moved between bodies, as boundaries of the self shift, and as experiences and understandings of the body change according to developing knowledge of health and illness. The field brings critical arts-based methods to play in extending the knowledge of all those involved in healthcare, with the aim of a greater appreciation of the meaning and relevance of clinical practice. It further demands that we think with and through biomedicine as we rethink our understandings of the human condition and form, and as we grapple with care in the context of global movements and unequal access to health care facilities.

Medical humanities and gender

At SKOK, researchers are particularly interested in the areas of medical humanities that relate to gender and sexuality, biotechnologies, psychology, migration, and questions of justice and responsibility. More specifically, work has been undertaken on the relationship between organ transplantation and colonial histories; intersexuality and transgender in South Africa and the Ukraine; psychoanalysis in a therapeutic, philosophical and literary context; trauma; and health and migration in both Norway and France. With an expertise in gender studies, SKOK aims to bring together an interdisciplinary approach that focuses on the intersection of gender, body and health. Given that SKOK already offers its expertise to many university departments and organisations on issues related to gender, its further goal is develop this interdisciplinary role, especially on a pedagogical level, to bring a much-needed gender approach to the medical humanities.

Nature vs. nurture and mind vs. brain

Currently, postdoctoral fellow Claus Halberg does research based in the philosophy of science and science criticism and looks at the understanding(s) of gender and gender differences in the light of two distinct yet related problematics: the nature vs. nurture problematic within the philosophy of biology, and the mind vs. brain problematic within the philosophy of mind and cognitive science. In this connection he looks particularly at the philosophical foundations of attempts to demonstrate and explain gender differences in cognition, emotion and behavior through the vocabularies of evolutionary psychology, genetics, neurobiology and cognitive psychology.

His research project, FEMSAG, in particular speaks to current attempts within feminist science criticism to address biases and blind spots in ongoing research on gender differences in the brain. An important guiding clue for all of the project’s thematics is the ambition to reconcile feminist intuitions about gender – traditionally understood as being opposed to biological explanations of gender-typical behaviour – with naturalist notions of the human as, above all, a biological species.

Neurological conditions and gender

PhD candidate Emily Violet Maddox researches neurological conditions and their relation to gender. She is primarily focussed on autism, but also interested in attention deficit disorders, dyspraxia and dyslexia. She is interested in these conditions because of their evolution from little known or "rare" conditions to being commonly diagnosed.

All of the mentioned conditions have been primarily associated with people assigned male at birth. Where collected, the data state that the gender ratio shows a significant disparity between people assigned male and people assigned female at birth who then get diagnosed with these conditions.

Cultural representations and popular discourse are also weighted in favour of depicting cisgender men and boys' relations to, and experience of, these conditions. This impacts in a major way on people assigned female at birth's life outcomes, including mental health, employment, education and overall well-being.

Read more about Emily's project here.

The Nordic Network Gender, Body and Health

As part of the focus on gender and the medical humanities, the Nordic Network Gender, Body and Health was previously hosted by SKOK, and together they organized a conference in 2016 on Disability, Arts and Health. The network is currently hosted by the Department of Ethnology, History of Religion and Gender Studies at Stockholm University, Sweden.