Reflecting on the History of Medicine, Part 1

For three weeks this summer, I was a teaching assistant for an intensive summer course on the history of medicine. There is a lot of very elegant writing and insightful thinking in this field. Whenever I read a book by a historian about the history of a disease, I find myself wishing I had more time to read and learn more about the history of medicine. Sadly, most of the time I have to prioritize my reading and focus on more contemporary cases, since I mainly study medicine in the present through interviews, following contemporary scientific research, and attending allergy-related events.

Historians ask very different questions when they conduct their research and use different methods to collect their data than anthropologists. These lines are not quite as hard and fast as they were, say, thirty years ago. Since at least the 1980s, it has become standard practice for anthropologists to include a chapter or two of historical information about the people they study when they write dissertations and books. However, they often look at different sources and interpret their data differently than a historian would do.

One thing I admire about historical analysis is the way that historians express the deep sympathy they have with their “subjects.” This sympathy is usually shown by allowing the historical actors to speak for themselves as much as possible. Historians seek out archives of letters, administrative papers (including boring things like ticket stubs, receipts, and to-do lists), and manuscript drafts to get inside the minds and times of their actors. When it comes time to write, carefully selected quotes that demonstrate patterns and reveal opinions populate the pages of the historian’s account. These words (and, when necessary, the historian’s report of their activities – their travels, illnesses, relationships, and surroundings) – lots and lots of them – form the basis of historical writing. To a certain extent, words and verified events are allowed to speak for themselves. The historical scholar interjects their interpretations primarily at the beginnings and ends of chapters, essays, and books.

Anthropologists have sympathy with their subjects, of course, but this sympathy is largely expressed by offering a unique interpretation of a group’s activities. The anthropologist looks for key moments which highlight what is important to the group they are studying, rather than providing the entire corpus of text which demonstrates a particular actor’s point of view on a certain matter. These narratives frequently recast the group’s activities as central to the functioning of the broader society of which they are a part. Quite often, this intellectual or philosophical “siding with” one’s participants is paired with support for the political causes that are important to them. Indeed, political allegiance is sometimes what motivates an anthropologist to study a particular group of people.

I approach my own research more as an anthropologist than as a historian. Most of the time, I am on the look out for those moments when conflicts and passions arise, when relationships click or dissolve, when things start to make sense or break down. What can moments of change and crisis reveal to us about social order, power, and the nature of human relationships?

However, one of my three academic advisors is a historian, and I chose her to advise me because of the rigor which historical analysis can add to a study of the emotions, motivations, and activities of groups of people. It is important to me to remain faithful to the events that occur during the course of my research, and to accurately give voice to the views of the people who I interview and observe. Historians have that down.

This is not the post I meant to write! But I think it’s a valuable one. Stay tuned for (at least) one more essay inspired by my stint masquerading as a historian while I get back into the swing of regular blog updates. I’ll talk about some of the theoretical issues that historians of medicine are interested in and how I see it impacting my own research on food allergies.

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