HHH spring meeting Feb 19: History from below revisited

Friday, February 19, 2021, 14.30-16.30

HHH warmly invites you to join us for our online spring meeting with an exciting programme on ‘history from below’. Read on for all information on the programme, registration and the HHH library put together for this meeting.

History from below revisited: where do we stand today?

Already 35 years ago, Roy Porter’s programmatic article ‘The patient’s view. Doing medical history from below’ was published. In it, the British historian advocated ‘an alternative history of medicine, largely written from the patient’s point of view’. Historiography, Porter argued, required a historical atlas of disease experiences and subjective interpretations of disease, and how they differed by place, time, age, gender, class, faith, ethnicity and other variables.

Where do we stand today? Is the call for ‘history from below’ for medical history still relevant or is it a bypassed station, as more and more researchers write not only about people who have sought or been enlisted for medical treatment but also actively with them, to incorporate lived experience?  In this meeting we will take a look at current trends. In three short plenary lectures of 15 minutes each, guest speakers reflect on their research in relation to the article by Roy Porter.

The lectures and subsequent discussion groups are organized around the triple A of Arena, Activism and Approaches. Following these three lectures, there is a short break and then we will split into three discussion groups, offering participants the opportunity to ask questions to the speakers and discuss research strategies and methodologies.

‘Arena’ is about the parties involved in health issues. Who do we involve in our research, who are the subject of research, and who do we speak to? But also, more broadly: how is our work received in different social domains? Megan Davies (historian at York University, Toronto) is keynote speaker in this session and will talks about her research on community psychiatry in Canada (After the Asylum), involving experienced experts.

Referent: Irene Geerts, historian and Phd candidate at the Open University. Irene works on a thesis on the Dutch family movement in Dutch mental health.

As (public) historians collaborate with people often excluded from traditional histories, they highlight new interpretations that call into question established narratives and their legacies in contemporary medicine. What is the role of the historian in applying the lessons of the past to address problems in the present? Manon Parry (chair medical history at VU University, Amsterdam), with Maurits Huijbrechtse, will talk about the collaborative project DisPLACE, a digital archive of disability history. Maurits is a third year history BA-student at the University of Amsterdam. He served as an ‘expert witness’ for the redesign of Dutch public transport for travelers with a disability. Maurits uses a wheelchair to get around. Outside of his studies, he is a voluntary reporter for the Gaykrant, an active research volunteer and ambassador for Museum Engelandvaarders in Noordwijk, and politically active in internal disability and inclusion advocacy with D66.  

Referent: Ruben Verwaal, historian and postdoc researcher at the Institute for Medical Humanities, Durham University (UK). Ruben conducts a postdoc project on deafness.

‘Approaches’ is about the sources and methodologies of history from below. Both traditional historiography and earlier periods as well as modern methodologies such as oral history and participant observation are discussed here. Leonieke Vermeer (assistant professor in modern history at Groningen University) talks about the use of ego documents as a source for medical history. 

Referent: Tinne Claes, historian and postdoc at KU Leuven. Tinne works on research on infertility in post-war Belgium.

  • 14.30 Welcome and opening by Gemma Blok, professor of modern history at the Open University, on behalf of HHH
  • 14. 35 Megan Davies, Centring on democracy. People, process and product in mad history 

How can we create activist history that values the voices of people with lived experience of mental health? Reviewing and assessing a methodology developed through academic-community collaborative research projects and products from Canada’s After the Asylum project, this presentation sets out a social change model for democratic collaborations with vulnerable people, arguing that we must revisit academic outputs and involve these key actors as research partners rather than research subjects.

  • 14.50 Comments by Irene Geerts
  • 14.55 Manon Parry, with Maurits Huijbrechtse, Using the past to shape the future

The public history of medicine is more than simply making traditional histories available for broad audiences in popular books, museum exhibitions, or community projects. Instead, such work draws on the radical approaches of participatory histories to bring hidden perspectives and new approaches into the field. This process greatly expands the range of topics that can be explored, and the reach and relevance of the results. This presentation will introduce some of the opportunities and challenges involved.

  • 15.10 Comments by Ruben Verwaal
  • 15.15 Leonieke Vermeer, From quantified to qualified self. Self-tracking in Dutch diaries (1780-1940)

In ‘The Patient’s View: Doing Medical History from Below’ Roy Porter suggested that diaries and correspondence would be the ultimate sources for the study of the patient’s perspective. These autobiographical sources, also termed ‘ego-documents’, have indeed turned out to be rich sources for the social and cultural history of medicine and health, but also very complicated ones. It is imperative to involve insights from the field of life writing and autobiographical studies for the interpretation of these sources, for example about narrativity and subjectivity. In this presentation, Leonieke focusses on a selection of Dutch diaries from the 19th and early 20th century, which will be analyzed as precursors of present-day self-tracking and the ‘Quantified Self’ movement. In recent years a variety of mobile apps and wearable technologies have emerged that allow individuals to track their daily steps, caloric burn, heart rate, sleep, stress levels, menstrual cycle, fertility and even masturbation habits. Wearable activity trackers like the Fitbit and the Apple Watch have become widely adopted. The ‘quantified self’ in effect often becomes the ‘qualified self’, because tracking data is not simply about the data, but involves the interpretation and assessment of data. Self-trackers use the data for identity meanings, to construct the stories that they tell themselves about themselves and often share these stories with others. Which similarities and differences can be observed between the ‘story’ that results from digital technology like self-tracking apps and wearables and the historical examples of monitoring bodily processes in paper diaries? 

15.30 Comments by Tinne Claes
15.35 Coffee/tea break
15.50 Q&A and discussion in three break-out groups

  • Break-out group ARENA (linking to the lecture by Megan Davies,)
  • Break-out group ACTIVISM (linking to the lecture by Manon Parry)
  • Break-out group APPROACHES (linking to the lecture by Leonieke Vermeer)

16.30-16.45 Plenary closing remarks by Gemma Blok

Please send your name, e-mail address ánd your first and second preferences for the break-out groups (ARENA, ACTIVISM, and/or APPROACHES) to t.bolt@erasmusmc.nl

HHH library: History from below revisited

We are working on additions to this little library as a follow up on the meeting. We will also make the keynote lectures available on this website. So please come back soon and check them out!

  • Roy Porter, The patient’s view, Doing medical history from below (1985)
  • Alexandra Bacopoulos-Viau and Aude Fauvel, The Patient’s Turn. Roy Porter and Psychiatry’s Tales, Thirty Years on (2016)
    The authors review history from below research since Porter’s article and conclude that there is still a lot of work to do.
  • John C. Burnham, The death of the sick role (2012)
    When we use the concept ‘history from below’ we tend to look first and foremost to the relationship between doctor and patient and the patient as care consumer. The concept of the ‘sick role’, by contrast, zooms in on the ‘social experience of being ill’. 
  • Flurin Condrau, The Patient’s View Meets the Clinical Gaze (2007)
    This article gains its inspiration from the fact that to the present day, the history of patients as an intellectual project has not found much reflection. Old categories, such as patient, knowledge and disease, all need to be revisited and rethought. It sketches out several arenas where this debate will have to take place and contrasts Porter’s patient’s view with David Armstrong’s writings on the constructed patient.
  • Allan Brandt, ‘From analysis to advocacy. Crossing boundaries as a historian of health policy’, in: Frank Huisman and John Harley Warner (eds.), Locating medical history. The stories and their meanings (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 460-484.
    Brandt raises the question what the task of the historian is or should be. According to temperament, civic inclination and political conviction, he distinguishes between three options: description, analysis and activism. Building on his own experience when writing his seminal The Cigarette Century, he shows how he has moved between positions.

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