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The limits of narrative: provocations for the medical humanities
  1. Angela Woods
  1. Correspondence to Dr Angela Woods, Centre for Medical Humanities, Durham University, House 4, Trevelyan College, Elvet Hill Road, Durham DH1 3LN, UK; angela.woods{at}durham.ac.uk

Abstract

This paper aims to (re)ignite debate about the role of narrative in the medical humanities. It begins with a critical review of the ways in which narrative has been mobilised by humanities and social science scholars to understand the experience of health and illness. I highlight seven dangers or blind spots in the dominant medical humanities approach to narrative, including the frequently unexamined assumption that all human beings are ‘naturally narrative’. I then explore this assumption further through an analysis of philosopher Galen Strawson's influential article ‘Against Narrativity’. Strawson rejects the descriptive claim that “human beings typically see or live or experience their lives as a narrative” and the normative claim that “a richly Narrative outlook is essential to a well-lived life, to true or full personhood”. His work has been taken up across a range of disciplines, but its implications in the context of health and illness have not yet been sufficiently discussed. This article argues that ‘Against Narrativity’ can and should stimulate robust debate within the medical humanities regarding the limits of narrative, and concludes by discussing a range of possibilities for venturing ‘beyond narrative’.

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