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Biomedicine and the humanities: growing pains
  1. Victoria Jane Hume1,2,
  2. Benson A Mulemi3,
  3. Musa Sadock4
  1. 1 Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER), University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
  2. 2 Health Communication Research Unit, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
  3. 3 Department of Social Social Sciences and Development Studies, Directorate of Research, Innovation and Graduate Training, The Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Nairobi, Kenya
  4. 4 Department of History, University of Dar es Salaam, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
  1. Correspondence to Victoria Jane Hume, Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER), University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg 2050, South Africa; victoriahume{at}


In this article, we discuss the challenges facing humanities researchers approaching studies in clinical and community health settings. This crossing of disciplines has arguably been less often explored in the countries we discuss—Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa—but our experiences also speak to broader trouble with disciplinary ‘ethnocentrism’ that hampers the development of knowledge. After a brief contextualising overview of the structures within our universities that separate or link the humanities, medicine and social science, we use case studies of our experiences as an arts researcher, an anthropologist and a historian to draw attention to the methodological clashes that can hobble research between one disciplinary area and another, whether this manifests in the process of applying for ethical clearance or a professional wariness between healthcare practitioners and humanities scholars in health spaces. We argue overall for the great potential of humanities in the health ‘space’—as well as the need for improved dialogue between the disciplines to bring a diverse community of knowledge to bear on our understandings of experiences of health. And we suggest the need for a robust awareness of our own positions in relation to medicine, as humanities scholars, as well as a patient persistence on both sides of the humanities–health science equation to create a broader and ultimately more effective research system.

  • medical anthropology
  • history
  • arts in health/arts and health
  • medical humanities

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  • Contributors All authors draw on their own research for these case studies.

  • Funding The studies discussed in this paper were funded and supported by (for VJH) the Wellcome Trust (grant number: 106481/Z/14/Z) and the National Research Foundation of South Africa; (for BAM) the Amsterdam Research institute of Metropolitan and International Development Studies (AMIDSt), University of Amsterdam and the AG Levintis Foundation at the University of Cambridge Centre of African Studies; (for MS) the African Doctoral DissertationResearch Fellowship (ADDRF) 2009 offered by the African Populationand Health Research Center (APHRC) in partnership with theInternational Development Research Center (IDRC) and Ford Foundation, the University of Dar es Salaam and the AfricanHumanities Dissertation Fellowship for 2011-2012 offered by African HumanitiesProgram (AHP) of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) . VJH acknowledges in particular the following partners in the Blood Sugars project: the Health Communication Research Unit and Drama for Life (University of the Witwatersrand) and the Diabetes and Endocrinology Clinic, Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement If readers are interested in further data relating to these studies, they should contact the corresponding author.