Reflections on a field across time and space: the emergent medical and health humanities in South Africa

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Medical Humanities, Volume 44, p.263–269 (2018)



<p>In this paper, we draw on our own cross-cultural experience of engaging with different incarnations of the medical and health humanities (MHH) in the UK and South Africa to reflect on what is distinct and the same about MHH in these locations. MHH spaces, whether departments, programmes or networks, have espoused a common critique of biomedical dualism and reductionism, a celebration of qualitative evidence and the value of visual and performative arts for their research, therapeutic and transformative social potential. However, there have also been differences, and importantly a different &lsquo;identity&rsquo; among some leading South African scholars and practitioners, who have felt that if MHH were to speak from the South as opposed to the North, they would say something quite different. We seek to contextualise our personal reflections on the development of the field in South Africa over recent years within wider debates about MHH in the context of South African academia and practice, drawing in part on interviews conducted by one of the authors with South African researchers and practitioners and our own reflections as &lsquo;Northerners&rsquo; in the &lsquo;South&rsquo;.</p>

Medical Humanities in Africa

WISER is working to establish the field of medical humanities in South Africa with other partners at Wits and in the region. Medical Humanities took root in the interdisciplinary spaces between social history of medicine, medical sociology, medical anthropology, literary studies, art and film studies, cultural studies, politics, philosophy, legal studies, public health, psychiatry, medical economics and medical ethics. Although initially concerned with contrasting and comparing approaches from the humanities and medical science to themes of health, suffering, therapy, pain and illness, it has grown in ambition to consider the foundational question of what it is to be fully human, inviting debate around vital epistemological problems. The interface of medicine and humanities also demands a broadly interdisciplinary discussion about what constitutes evidence, and this is critical in the formulation of all contemporary political arguments, including health policies.