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Reports from the BSA Medical Sociology Group 45th Annual Conference


Robyn Lotto
PhD Student, University of Leicester, UK

Well, where to begin? I wanted to write a few words to create a personal record of my experience at the conference. When reflecting on what to write, I started by attempting to summarise the sessions I had attended and had found most inspiring. As I looked at the 40 pages of notes I had made during the conference, I realised that I needed to change tack, and decided instead to document a few things that made MedSoc different. In the spirit of MedSoc, I thought I'd share them.

Although a MedSoc novice, I have attended a large number of conferences throughout my working life. One of the first things that struck me when arriving, was the family like feel (and I'm not just referring to the Scamblers!) Everyone was so friendly. There wasn't a meal that I sat down to, where someone didn't introduce themselves and strike up a conversation.

I had arrived feeling a little star struck as I paged through lists of names of people whose work I had read and admired in the delegate log. The opportunity to hear them speak has been inspirational. The mix of experience and youth (in terms of experience not age) of the authors who presented papers was fantastic. Not only something for everyone in terms of content, but also in relation to opportunity to present and get feed back.

Catherine Pope, in her plenary speech introduction, talked about her feelings as she had sat in the audience in years past, unable to imagine she would ever be someone standing up and talking. My sentiments exactly!

The quality (and quantity) of papers was perhaps a little overwhelming and despite any insinuation from fellow conference dinner goers that it was the wine, I felt exhausted by Friday.

At the risk of sounding like a gushing schoolgirl, I also wanted to mention the general friendly, approachable atmosphere where sharing of ideas is supported and advice both freely given and well received. As someone whose worst nightmare is standing up and speaking in public, MedSoc would certainly be my choice of place to bare my study's soul.

So, rejuvenated and reinvigorated, I wanted to say thank you and looking forward to next year!



Oli Williams

Department of Sociology, University of Leicester, UK

I recently received a funded place at the MedSoc annual conference and it was suggested to me that as such I may want to write a short commentary about the conference. As I am very grateful of the support I received and really enjoyed my time at the conference I felt this was the least I could do to in some way express my gratitude. I have chosen to write a report about the symposium entitled 'Public Health and the Environment: Sociological Perspectives' that took place on the second day of the conference.

With a conference programme so rich in interest, attending one of the symposia at the recent BSA MedSoc annual conference at the University of York almost seemed like a decadent way to spend an hour and forty minutes. Dedicating that amount of time to one session meant necessarily missing some of the many interesting papers I'd pencilled a star next to when before the event I was planning what to attend based entirely on intrigue with no regard for logistics. Not only that but being able to sit in one place for such a length of time and avoid multiple mad dashes to far flung rooms seemed a convenient luxury that I couldn't be sure wasn't swaying my decision. Whether it was a decadent decision or not, choosing to attend the 'Public Health and the Environment' symposium, chaired by Dr Daniel Wight, proved to be a sound one.

As a first time attendee of a MedSoc conference and a fortunate, as well as very grateful, recipient of one of the funded places offered to postgraduate students, I was keen to make the most of the three days. I attended as many sessions as I could and frequently found myself interested and engaged by those presenting. Limiting myself to only reviewing one of these sessions though has seen the only symposium I managed to attend come to the forefront of my mind. The stated aim of the session was to bring sociological perspectives to bear upon the interaction between health and the global environment and interrogate how public health might engage with eminent ecological issues. All three presentations delivered on this front but it was Professor Nick Fox's, in between Richard Compton's and Maya Gislason's, that proved to stimulate most of the debate in the following discussion.

Professor Fox's argument for the adoption of an anti-humanist approach to issues of the environment and health proved to be divisive. In fact, it would not be amiss to write that it could be considered to have been a largely unpopular proposition in the room. Even as he was speaking I sensed that his arguments may well be received about as enthusiastically as Chris Packham's were by Frank Skinner, the host of Room 101, when he was asked which animal he would rid the planet of and he chose humans (as you're reading this I guess you don't need me to tell you that Skinner rejected Packham's suggestion to banish us to the bin of nightmares). This reaction is perhaps unsurprising as you could argue that anthropocentrism is an expected bias within the social sciences. But it was this prejudice that made the argument for anti-humanism seem even more radical than it might have been in another room and stimulated a stirring discussion. As an embittered Englishman who romanticises martyrdom, I was increasingly convinced of the necessity of my, or indeed our, subordination the longer Professor Fox's talk went on but I seemed to be on the less populated pole of persuasion. The general negative reaction in the room may be considered to be representative of the reaction that would be garnered more generally and presented an unfortunate truth. The merit of an argument can be overshadowed by its popularity or lack thereof and this is especially so when its intention is to influence the policy of a democratically elected government. I was convinced but such an approach to the environment and health can't really be done on a small scale.

This was the joy and agony of attending this symposium and being exposed to and engaged by Professor Fox's arguments. His is an argument I feel needs to be heard and accepted by people in power if we are, as a global community, serious about addressing the pressing ecological issues. It seems though that it is also likely to be an unpopular argument. Adopting an anti-humanist approach may be what is most beneficial for the environment, and possibly even most beneficial for human health at large, but it is unlikely to be popular with those privileged enough to take environmentally damaging and unsustainable lifestyles for granted. Unfortunately, I couldn't see past what I perceive as a reality; no matter how theoretically sound an anti-humanist approach to environmental and health issues is, the privileged minority have influence and are more likely to vote to maintain their unsustainable privilege than adopt an approach that subverts human 'needs'. So, although I had been thoroughly engaged, it was with regret that I left the symposium as I reflected that the adoption of Professor Fox's approach seemed to necessitate Chris Packham having been successful in having the trap door opened to his selection. I know what you're thinking, why did we give so much responsibility to Frank Skinner? It would seem we were doomed either way.


Rachel Hale
PhD student, Community Health Sciences, University of Nottingham, UK.

The format of this symposium consisted of three 20-minute papers, followed by half an hour of open discussion of the topics raised. The papers were presented by Nick Fox (Durham University), Richard Compton (King's College London) and Maya Gislason (University of Sussex). Each of the presenters called for medical sociology's attention to be turned to environmental issues and they all emphasised the anthropocentric nature of healthcare and research. The symposium was chaired by Daniel Wright, of the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit.

Richard Compton considered the relationship between medical sociology and climate change. Richard highlighted the anthropocentric nature of the main discipline of sociology, and of medical sociology. Richard proposed that despite the considerable attention that has been given by health researchers to the health implications of climate change, medical sociology has failed to critically assess these developments or make theoretical and empirical contributions. Richard suggested a range of issues that medical sociology addresses, including the impact of climate change on health, and the aims and organisation of health care/services and its impact on the environment. Nick concluded by proposing that in future environmental issues be included as a MedSoc conference stream, rather than just a special symposia.

Nick Fox outlined five perspectives on 'health and the environment'. The first was that human health is threatened by environmental factors (for example, by climate change). The second, that improving the environment can enhance human health. The third, that improvements in health threaten the environment (for example, through population growth and economic development). The fourth, that initiatives can reduce the environmental impact of health care. And the fifth concerned Gaia-inspired conceptions of humans as part of a self-regulating environmental system.

Nick asked whether human health and environmental health are potentially antagonistic, contradictory forces, how human and environmental health can be complementary, and should human and environmental health have priority?

Nick asserted that most healthcare and medical therapy is inevitably anthropocentric, and that health has become a 'good' that is almost unquestionable. An anti-humanist, neo-materialist approach was proposed an alternative to an anthropocentric approach to health. An anti-humanist approach would focus on the non-human, the inanimate and social formations, and would consider the way these elements affect each other; where humans would no longer be the sole agents. Nick suggested taking a Deleuzian approach which reveals that the environment is no longer separate from bodies. The latter are part of an assemblage that is 'environment' and health is a consequence of the capacity that bodies have, and is a by-product of sustainability or resilience.

Maya Gislason considered 'Health in the Anthropocene'. Maya considered the difference between 'tame' problems, which she says science was developed to deal with, and 'wicked' and 'super wicked' problems or social messes of 'Ecological Health Research and Practice'. Maya drew attention to the interplay between social and ecological factors in many contemporary disease burdens and drew attention to the newly emerging field of 'ecological health', which she said is grounded in the use of ecosystem approaches to health research and practice.

The symposium was well attended and the open discussion was diverse. Among the topics discussed was the relationship between humans' exploitation and consumption of non-human animals, particularly as food sources, and the affect of this on the environment and human health. Some audience members suggested veganism as a solution to some of these issues. I was particularly interested in this part of the discussion, both as a vegetarian and, as a researcher interested in the zoonotic disease influenza.


Naomi Wood
PhD Student, Institute of Population Health, University of Manchester, UK

This was the first year that I have attended the Medical Sociology Group Annual Conference. With such a huge and varied programme of events, I wanted to take the opportunity to attend talks outside of my 'usual' home of study (a Primary Care Research Centre). With this intention, I attended the symposium on Public Health and the Environment: Sociological Perspectives (Fox, Wight, Compton & Gislason).

The speakers at this symposium presented and discussed (in various ways) the idea that studies of health and illness are 'anthropocentric': that human bodies and human experiences are privileged. In the context of medical sociology and medical anthropology this might seem to be an unproblematic statement; both disciplines consider human experience (of health and illness) within particular social, cultural and structural contexts. However, the speakers in this symposium presented a challenge to think about the relationship between people and their environment in a different way; not just to consider context as shaping experiences of health and illness but to consider how humans (and human health and illness) affect the environment (as a context upon which human life depends).

In terms of our (human) relationship with the environment, Maya Gislason talked about an 'invisibility' of the environment; that unless an environmental emergency occurs, for example a flood or an earthquake, the environment remains invisible. I understood this as a sort of 'taken-for-granted-ness' in the way that we live within our physical environment; that when it 'works' and provides what we need (food, water, shelter, etc.) we don't notice it or experience it as something that requires attention. An environmental emergency challenges this invisibility and prompts a change in the awareness that humans have of their environment.

It struck me that this line of thought presented an interesting parallel with ideas about changes in awareness of the body in different states of health and illness; that it is only when the body is in crisis, or is not functioning in the expected way, that it becomes visible to the person. In his book The Absent Body, Drew Leder (1990) gives the example of pain as a stimulus for a change in the perception of the body, which results in a call for action:

'My own body becomes the object not just of perception and interpretation but of action. I seek medication, physical therapies, whatever will help. My projects are reorganised around the attempt to cope with or remove the pain. Instead of just acting from the body, I act toward it.' (p78-79)

Like the idea of an environmental crisis changing our awareness of our physical surroundings, the experience of pain also demands a different kind of attention, and a stimulus to act. The idea of 'de-humanising' research on health and illness as an alternative to anthropocentric research agendas can be seen not as a question of removing human bodies and experience but demanding a different kind of attention to it. To apply Leder's words, 'dehumanising' studies of health and illness is a call for acting toward the environment instead of from it.

My hope in attending this conference was that I would not only hear something about what I already know but be challenged to apply that to other questions of health and illness. Listening to the speakers at this symposium did exactly that - and it served as a great reminder to keep an open mind along the way in my PhD.

Leder, D. (1990). The Absent Body. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago.


Lucy Perry
Medical School, University of Exeter, UK

I was lucky enough to be given a funded student place at this year's BSA MedSoc conference in York, and was asked to write a short commentary about my experience. I had intended to write about my overall impressions of the event but one of the final presentations particularly caught my attention in quite an unsettling yet thought-provoking way, and so I decided to comment on this instead. The paper was given by Aksel Tjora from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and had the intriguing title of 'Offline Health'. In relation to the dramatic increase in smartphone use and internet-based social media in recent years, the study looks at the effects of this new information-heavy lifestyle on health. This is achieved not by exploring the health and behaviours of people who are regularly online, but by observing the effects of being, and staying, offline. In a nutshell, 13 participants who were daily internet users were asked to go 'offline' for 3 weeks, and were interviewed regularly throughout this time. As someone who is very much a daily internet user, and possibly (or at least on the borderline of being) what Tjora called a 'digital native', I could sympathise with these participants.

Tjora explained that, from the outset, he was unsure how, if at all, being 'offline' would affect the health of his participants. Although the project was in the early stages, and a full analysis had not yet been undertaken, some of the participant quotes were shared with the audience. Terms that you would more likely find in narratives about stress, pain and addiction were abundant in the quotes from the interviews conducted only a few days in to the 3 week abstinence. Clearly, and quite remarkably so, this is something which does have an effect on people's health, and not solely on their social relationships and sense of community.

At this stage, I was beginning to hope that the findings ended there, and that the obvious conclusion to be drawn was that going offline must be bad for your health. Inevitably however, the quotes from the interviews conducted later in the 3 week 'offline' period were far more positive with participants reporting that they felt less stressed, were able to do more, were able to concentrate for longer, and (as I was fearing) study harder. It appeared that people felt refreshed and even calmer after only a short amount of time not using the internet.

In this excellent presentation, Aksel Tjora raised some key issues and concerns about this relatively new phenomenon and lifestyle where the internet and social media not only facilitate our rapid access of information and multiple forms of communication, but also hinders our ability to concentrate and work productively. Ultimately, this may affect our health. I found myself feeling slightly uneasy during the presentation because of the creeping realisation that, while I found the quotes amusing (things such as 'this is hell'), I could also identify with some of the feelings the participants were describing.
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