Loading Events

Health sciences and the social: Health and social mobilization, 1950-2020s

Rudolf Virchow’s much quoted aphorism “Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale” (1848) dominated an era, from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, when medicine provided a series of concepts, instruments and practices, models and experiments to a wide range of social and political experiences, especially in the framework of projects such as hygienism, eugenism, social medicine or colonialism. By contrast, the 1960s opened an era where an increasing number of activists, health experts, and social and life scientists, could have claimed that “medicine is nothing else but politics, and social science is a foundation of medicine”. Across a variety of health domains, experts developed discourses and practices with the aim of intervening on, correcting and at times changing society. On the reverse, various social mobilizations reflected, were based on, or challenged medical discourses and practices.

Several scholars, including sociologists and historians, have provided fascinating insights into the cross fertilization of social mobilizations and health in specific contexts from the 1960s onwards. Most of this scholarship has focused on a small number of examples such as the relationship between antipsychiatry and leftist social movements in Europe in the 1970s, the connections between the anti-AIDS mobilisations and the broader gay movement from the 1980s, or the emergence of humanitarian medicine in the 1970s. Beyond these examples, sociologists have investigated the ascent of health social movements (HSMs) in a variety of contexts in the last decades of the century. More generally, the “new social movements” paradigm in political science has provided a framework to account for the emergence, in the post industrial society, of a new type of social mobilization led by the new middle classes and centering on quality of life, with health as a central component of these mobilizations.

Yet beyond these theorizations and local examples, we lack a broader understanding of the ways in which various branches of the health sciences have contributed to, have been embedded in and have been shaped by the specific social contexts, agendas and/or movements of 1968 and post-1968 societies. What conditions explain the politicization of certain segments of medicine and health? What specific terrain have medicine and health provided for social movements? How have these processes competed with the growing trend of privatization of health care since the late twentieth century?

This workshop will explore the historical aspects of the interrelationships between health sciences and the social, from the mid-twentieth century to today, a period of rapid scientific developments, profound social changes, and intense social movements. We propose a two-fold approach: on the one hand, we would like to investigate the social and political agendas developed within the various branches of medicine; on other hand we also want to account for the ways in which social movements and mobilizations have tackled health issues. We are interested in case studies that investigate particularly (but not exclusively) the following questions/thematic axes:

  • How have health professionals (physicians, therapists, nurses etc.) linked health and healthcare issues with wider social and political developments? What were their positions towards these developments? For instance, did they try to have an impact on them or on the contrary did they derive inspiration from them in order to trigger change within their own professional field? What sort of coalitions did they try to create with actors of these developments?
  • Which social movements and mobilizations have had specific health agendas, either supporting or challenging medical authority? For example, we are interested in social movements/mobilizations that have criticized the medicalization of social problems, the lack of medical services for specific problems, or the specific kinds of health interventions, such as biomedical approaches, calling for and suggesting alternative methods. How have health experts responded to or featured in these movements/mobilizations?
  • How have social movements contributed to both creating medical knowledge and shaping medical practices? Conversely, what scene did the medical setting specifically provide for social mobilizations?
  • How and why have health experts and social movements/mobilisations challenged the ways in which political and medical power have allied to obtain privileges or manage certain social groups? Of specific interest would be the challenging of health sciences as perpetrators of structural violence and inequalities based on race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, disease and/or disability.
  • In what instances has health been conceptualized as a social right? We welcome case studies of health experts and social movements/mobilizations that addressed the issue of social inequalities and articulated specific concepts of justice. How have the issues of inequality, discrimination, and rights been framed?
  • How can we understand recent social movements that have resisted the public health measures taken by governments and local health bodies in response to COVID 19? How do the convictions guiding these forms of protest differ from or continue earlier forms of health mobilization? As a consequence, how is the relationship between the public and state power reshaped and novel forms of protest put into action?
  • We are particularly interested in methodological approaches and case studies that move beyond European and North America. How can a focus on health mobilizations in the Global South reshape our understanding of these social movements? What global, hemispheric, or regional dynamics have escaped the attention of scholars in the field so far?


Proposals of no more than 300 words and a one-page CV should be sent by 31/12/2022 to Nicolas Henckes (nicolas.henckes@cnrs.fr) or Despo Kritsotaki (despo.kritsotaki@gmail.com). Notification of acceptance: 31/1/2023

Organizing committee
Alexander Dunst, Assistant Professor of American Studies, Paderborn University, Germany
Nicolas Henckes, Associate Researcher, CNRS, France
Despo Kritsotaki, Associate Member, CERMES3, France
Chantal Marazia, Lecturer, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, Germany
Matthew Smith, Professor of Health History, University of Strathclyde, UK