Following the latest New Generations workshop in Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) on September 25th 2014, New Generations Programme member Ben writes:

New Generations: Using our inheritance wisely
by Ben Kasstan

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The CMH New Generations programme is a pioneering initiative to gather emerging thinkers who are linked with the medical humanities – a discipline formed of a fluid but rapidly growing community of scholars, practitioners and activists. To be one of fourteen participants included in this novel series of training workshops and discussions is an invaluable opportunity for a PGR student such as myself– especially when at the beginning of my research career, crossing boundaries of the (un)familiar, and realising my contributions to the wider and competitive market of academia. Despite having the privilege of working with the CMH since 2012 when I received a studentship through the Centre’s Wellcome Trust Strategic Award to undertake an MSc Medical Anthropology (and remain affiliated as a PhD candidate), I was still apprehensive about how the programme would unfold and materialise.

Although I am an anthropologist-in-training, I feel comfortable in the medical humanities because it is a community that draws inspiration from academic and clinical practice and is (in my view) therefore in a strong position to act as an enabler of change, or at the very least a mediator between these two languages and thought processes. In a sense, the discipline is a second home because it draws upon an important ambition of anthropology; to be a platform for championing the pertinence of lived experience, subjectivity and constraints brought by socio-political environments, whereby ‘one continually learns and relearns to live with as much as through one’s body, in its various states of health and illness, youth and old age, boredom and trauma, routine and instability’ (Biehl, Good, and Kleinman 2007:10).

I also see anthropology and the medical humanities as a personal outlet to fulfil the obligation of Tikkun Olam (Hebrew, healing or repairing the world) and contribute to an academic movement by ultimately working towards greater equity in health and inform health delivery strategies for marginal and minority groups, extending beyond the Jewish community in which I work. My hope for being part of the CMH New Generations programme would enable me to share this perspective and nurture collaborations to that effect.

Ambitious in its aims and confidently planned, the programme began with an inaugural workshop over 25-26 September facilitated by Mary Robson (CMH, Durham University) and Dori Beeler (Department of Anthropology, Durham University), and was overseen by Professor Jane Macnaughton. Held in Durham University’s prestigious Institute of Advanced study, the first encounter consisted of a series of presentations which encouraged us to question what interdisciplinarity is and how it can shape the future of the medical humanities. The first workshop offered a series of presentations on ‘interdisciplinary perspectives’ by some of the CMH’s most leading and imaginative academics, prompting our team to gain a full understanding of the sheer diversity within the medical humanities and to also draw out the key messages and issues at play.


From Professor Veronica Strang’s presentation, I imagined collaborative work as, at times, being championed in theory rather than in practice: an obstacle to interdisciplinarity can be academics seeing their disciplines less as part of a network or joined by a seam line and more as bounded entities with territorial integrities that need to be defended. Professor Sarah Atkinson’s presentation on “‘Health’ and ‘Medical’ Humanities” encouraged me to critically interrogate the terms we use (health and medical, wellbeing, risk), as well as exploring the merits of transcending or negotiating time and space in research through talks by Dr Angela Woods and Professor Corinne Saunders.

A presentation by David Smailes (Post-Doctoral Researcher, CMH) on the challenges of interdisciplinary projects was actually one of the most insightful, and helped me to realise that some of the difficulties and doubts I have felt about the New Generations programme might be quite normal. Crossing academic boundaries can indeed be time consuming and frustrating. As much as it was a privilege to work with PGR and ECR colleagues from diverse institutions that you might not ordinarily encounter in the same room, I felt I was constantly struggling to articulate and translate my thoughts to thinkers from other backgrounds. At times I felt out of my depth, lacking the academic and personal experience that my colleagues possessed. However, our common interest in interdisciplinarity was at the heart of our presence in Durham, and so presented an opportunity to be creative in how solutions are found and relationships are built. As much as I needed to tune into the thought processes of my ‘generation’, one message I have taken home from the first workshop is that interdisciplinary work demands a level of fluency and a sense of rootedness in the ethics, methodologies, and outlooks of one’s own academic background. Being more committed to my own department and engaging in its crossfire of anthropological perspectives would actually enable me to contribute more fully to the medical humanities and the New Generations programme.

The New Generations programme also demonstrates a remarkable and forward-thinking level of investment from our coalition of funders (the AHRC, Wellcome Trust), and reflects the increasing degree of institutional interest in the medical humanities. With this privilege of forming the ‘new generation’ comes a responsibility to spend our inheritance wisely and continue to shape the discipline that we might have a personal or professional stake in. This could, for example, come in the form of interdisciplinary collaborations, public as well as clinical engagement, or even mentorship to ensure the continued growth and rejuvenation of the medical humanities.

My hope for the New Generations programme is to continue articulating a clear vision for the medical humanities as a discipline, particularly at ‘home’ in Durham which is arguably a flagship and beacon of potential considering the pioneering research it has contributed. The level of funding and outputs  from the CMH over the past few years have been extraordinary, including the launch of this pioneering blog and the book Frissure, Hubbub at the Wellcome Trust,  as well as the Life of Breath and Hearing the Voice projects to name a few. However, just as the New Generations programme might indicate, the continuity of these achievements need to be ensured. To this effect, it would further the successes of the CMH by developing a postgraduate degree that practices what the Centre preaches, and enable students to draw on the riches and inspirations available through Durham’s leading and interconnected departments whilst also proliferating the Centre’s sustainable growth.

True to the name of the programme, the New Generations clearly shows that the best of the medical humanities is yet to come and the forthcoming training workshops in Glasgow are eagerly awaited.


Ben Kasstan is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology with a studentship from the Wellcome Trust (Society & Ethics). His PhD is currently exploring the experience of childhood and understandings of child health services/information within the Orthodox-Haredi Jewish community of Salford, especially perceptions of NHS services/information relating to paediatric vaccines, nutrition and physical activity. His MSc Medical Anthropology dissertation (funded through the CMH), explored the ageing experience of Shoah survivors and their reflections of trauma through food, which received the 2014 Margaret Clark Award from the Association of Anthropology & Gerontology.


Works Cited:

Biehl, Joao, Byron Good, and Arthur Kleinman. 2007. Subjectivity: Ethnographic Investigations. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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