William Viney writes – This is the first of five posts introducing individual papers from a special issue of Medical Humanities, edited by myself, Felicity Callard, and Angela Woods. A more general overview of the special issue can be found here.

Andy Goffey’s paper examines the separation of different forms of knowledge production: the relative isolation of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, and the effects of this separation on the way that the language of immunology has permeated social, political, and cultural arenas. The theorisation of immunology in and beyond the life sciences has developed through the languages of warfare, the penal and migration systems: following Foucault, much critical work has focused on how pathogens have been figured as ‘criminals’ or ‘foreign powers’, and the immune system likened to plainclothes police officers. This form of critique has attempted to wed biomedical research to a wider set of historical, economic and political conditions, in this case, the presentation of a biological mechanism is profoundly bound to nineteenth and twentieth-century forms of social, economic, and political governance. But the act of critically highlighting the discursive nature of immunological thinking also has weaknesses that are pertinent to medical humanities projects whose critical insights depend on insisting that biomedical knowledge should be viewed as a social construction. Prime among these weaknesses is the superiority claimed by those whose critical perspective aims at exposing illusions, as well as the problematic equivalences drawn between a world of ‘constructions’ and the social practices said to govern them. Goffey, instead, warns against the hierarchies that criticism can produce and stresses the importance of avoiding the shortcuts upon which many of those hierarchies depend. This is an article that appeals to forms of medical humanities research that can be open about shared confusions and unresolved complexities. For a limited period only, Andy Goffey’s paper is freely accessible.

In his response to Goffey’s paper, Alex Nading states that medical humanities scholars ought to “become comfortable with the idea that science is neither an explanatory device nor a device to be explained.” Post your comments below or join us on Twitter to let us know what you think.

And you can read the full introductory paper for free, its Open Access.


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