News | Analyzing disability through culture

Interdisciplinary approach is “greater than the sum of its parts”

A new interdisciplinary field of disability studies – coined as Biocultures – was presented to the McGill community by professor Leonard Davis of the University of Illinois, as the keynote address of McGill’s “Disability on Location” symposium last Wednesday.

Biocultures is an intersection of science, technology, medicine, and cultures, which Davis hopes can add a breadth of understanding to disability that is currently unavailable in the present model.

“Is the knowledge achieved [through interdisciplinary study] greater than the sum of its parts? I would argue that in [Biocultures] it is,” said Davis.

He stressed that culture was missing from how society views illness and impairment.

“There are a given pool of symptoms [that] change over time and culture,” he said.

Davis’s most recent research is the application of a Biocultures approach to obsession and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). He pointed to how conceptions of this condition have changed drastically over time.

Davis cited the 18th century, where the predominantly religious context linked obsession and OCD to possession by the devil. He contrasted this to the present day, where these illnesses are widely accepted.

“Executives are being trained on how to be obsessive. They are studying Obsessive Compulsives and people with mania and trying to come up with methods to go farther and do more work,” said Davis. “We believe in our culture that unless we’re obsessed – with our work, with our boyfriends and girlfriends, with our sports – you’re only doing it by half-measure.”

The addition of culture, history, and politics to the study of psychiatric disability is critical for a complete understanding of these diseases, added Davis.

“If you are in medical school studying psychiatric illness, you’re not studying its history, but what it is right now – everything else that came before was a mistake. But we know [these illnesses] change every 20 or 30 years.”

These changes over time, according to Davis, should make us look at conditions like OCD not simply physical conditions, but partly as social construction. For example, in our culture, advertisements for pharmaceuticals drastically affect our notion of illness and impairment, allowing us to identify symptoms – and thus conceive of diseases – in a way that others in the past would not have been able to do.

Davis also pointed out that in our lifetime cultural transformations have produced conditions like Attention Deficit Disorder that were previously unheard of.

“You’re going to see [in the near future] a whole lot of new diseases,” said Davis, adding that with these new disorders, the precedent to accommodate them may become more difficult. “How do you accommodate someone with a shopping disorder, or a pedophilic disorder?”

The “Disability on Location” symposium was the first of its kind at McGill, and brought together interdisciplinary academic talks, and entertainment-based events in the hope of gaining support for an integrated Disability Studies program at McGill.


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