Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Language of Illness and Pain conference

The Language of Illness and Pain
Identity, Communication and the Clinical Encounter

Date: Saturday 2nd and Sunday 3rd July 2011
Venue: Birkbeck College, University of London

Following the establishment of the British medical profession in the nineteenth century, which endorsed the concept of medicine as a science, the clinical encounter between doctor and patient came to occupy a contested territory with equally contested boundaries. The period saw a theoretical and practical shift away from the classical perception of medicine as an art, based on the patient’s story of his or her illness, to medicine as a science, based on the doctor’s clinical observations and supported by the rapid increase in technical training and new scientific procedures.

Arguably the effect of this development was to suppress the patient’s identity and voice. It also sidelined psychologically-driven theories, which were thought to lack evidence-based scientific rigour and were regarded as inferior to biomedical practice. As a result, conditions and identities associated with the troubled mind and with anti-social behaviours, for example, were pathologised to bring them into the province of orthodox treatments. The cure rate for the new taxonomies of stigmatised identities and psychosomatic conditions was disappointing. Moreover there was considerable confusion at the interface between the disciplines of law, medicine, psychology, and social science in relation to distinctions between normal behaviour and deviancy, between the criminal and the patient, and between the mad and the bad.

This interdisciplinary conference seeks to examine the legacy of these trends through the analysis of communication and language in the clinical encounter, as it is represented today in medicine and in the humanities. The objective is to break down the artificial boundaries between the arts and biomedical science to identify mutually beneficial fields of enquiry. In particular the conference aims to establish a forum in which academics, practitioners and students in the medical profession and in humanities can interrogate and evaluate the clinical encounter, the relationship between doctor and patient, and the language of illness and pain. The intention is to publish a collection of the best conference papers in a medical humanities book that will be of interest to the general reader but which can also be used by students and academics in teaching and research.

The conference is the result of the collaboration between Medical Humanities at Birkbeck College, University of London and the Kent, Surrey and Sussex Medical Deanery. It takes part over two days – Saturday and Sunday 2nd-3rd July 2011. Refreshments and lunches are provided and there will be a wine reception on Saturday, followed by a screening of Wit, the American TV drama based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Margaret Edson, directed by Nike Nichols and starring Emma Thompson. Formal presentations end at lunchtime on Sunday and will be followed in the afternoon by a talk at the British Museum in the Wellcome Trust-sponsored Living and Dying Room.

The conference will be supported by an exhibition, which will include books, music, and visual art, which explore representations of, and the creative interaction between medicine and the humanities throughout the ages.

CFP: We invite proposals (300 words max) for 20-minute papers from academics and practitioners in the fields of the humanities and medicine, which explore any aspect of communication, language, narrative, and representation in relation to illness and pain. Proposals for panels of three speakers are welcome.

The following list of ideas is intended as a guideline only:

Altered mental states
Collective illness, collective healing
Cultural perceptions of illness: gender, class, and ethnicity
Cure or healing?
Difference, otherness and pathologised identity
Identity and the 12-step programme
Illness, language and writing
Illness as metaphor
Illness and creativity / genius and madness
It’s all in the mind
Medicine and anthropology
Medicine and music
Medicine and place: exteriors and interiors
Medicine and ritual
Medicine and visual culture
Narrative medicine and the clinical encounter
Narrative, identity and psychoanalysis
Narrative and the case history
The art of dying
The fictional doctor and patient
The medical autobiography / memoir
The Illness memoir
The language of pain
The language and lure of ‘Bad Science’
The poetry of pain
Symbolic medicine: the staff of Asklepios and the caduceus of Hermes
Trauma and language
Western biomedicine and trans-cultural practices
Who owns the illness?

Format: Given the interdisciplinary nature of the conference, we would like papers to be accessible to all participants. If your proposal is accepted we will ask you to provide a short handout in advance of the conference, which includes an abstract that sets out your key arguments followed by brief definitions of terminology.

CPD points for clinicians: Given the contribution the conference will make to clinical practice, CPD credits may be claimed under your individual College guidelines.

The deadline for proposals is Friday 17th December. Please contact Debbie Harrison ( and Jo Winning ( We would be delighted to discuss your ideas informally in advance. The website ( will be updated regularly to provide further information about plenary speakers, accommodation options, parking arrangements etc. Birkbeck's facilities include wheelchair access.


Anonymous said...

please insert some details about the conference? The call for papers was closing 2 weeks ago.
I cannot see any booking form. Thanks

Giskin said...

I don't think the programme has been released yet. As soon as a booking form and programme becomes available, I'll be sure to post it here. You might want to e-mail the organisers, whose addresses are in the main post.

Anonymous said...

I was accepted at the conference. Do you have news about? If I do not pay my accommodation this week, it will be too expensive later. Also the plane tickets. I still waiting some news from the organisers Thanks a lot!