Crawford, Paul and Brian Brown and Charley Baker and Victoria Tischler and Brian Abrams, Health Humanities

Paul Crawford, Brian Brown, Charley Baker, Victoria Tischler and Brian Abrams, Health Humanities (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmilan 2015) 194pp. £15.99 EPUB & PDF, £19.99 Pb, £58.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781137282606

How can studies in the arts and humanities influence, shape and inform our cultural understanding of health and healthcare-related activities? This is the main question animating Health Humanities. Offering a wide-ranging series of examples, this new monograph presents itself as a manifesto seeking to highlight the ways in which the study of such fields as anthropology, literature and linguistics, performing and visual arts have engaged, and can continue to engage, with healthcare in order to improve the quality of services provided to patients and the conditions of work of the different practitioners involved in the field. Encouraging an all-inclusive approach to health, Health Humanities provides a valuable survey of the different ways in which arts and humanities and healthcare can intersect and the potential areas of study left to explore.

Basing itself on the emergence, over the past few years, of new academic programmes both in the UK and in the US dedicated to medical and health humanities, Crawford et al.’s volume primarily unfolds as a wide-ranging analysis of the current state of the field. Drawing from numerous studies, it seeks to expose how an active engagement with the arts and humanities can provide numerous benefits for all kinds of health care practices. Through chapters exploring the impact of different fields of study on healthcare, the authors clearly highlight the different impacts that academics engaged in the arts and humanities have had when working together with healthcare practitioners. For example, in their chapter on applied literature, they highlight how the introduction of literary criticism and the analysis of narratives during their studies can provide valuable support to nurses engaged in mental health and illness. As they explain, the study of fictional texts centred around mental health, notably Caroline Kettlewell’s Skin Game (1999) and Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted (1993), can invite students to consider ‘some of the emotional and psychological wounds behind the visible’ (52). Similarly, in their chapter on anthropology and cultural studies, they approach the ways in which the study of ritual practices can inform and shape practitioners’ approach not only to end-of-life care but to more benign and often-neglected forms of therapy such as the application of a sticking plaster to a minor injury, the provision of prescription at the end of a consultation or simply having one’s chest listened to with a stethoscope.

It is in those specific instances of exemplary work that Health Humanities offers its most convincing argument for the expansion of healthcare’s engagement with the arts and humanities. Indeed, the authors’ emphasis on direct and concrete examples of interventions by the arts and humanities studies in healthcare practices provides a very compelling case for further collaborations. By showing how such distant fields as anthropology and performing dance can both positively contribute to healthcare and to our health-related discourses, Health Humanities makes a strong case for both the expansion of academic studies in this intersectional field and for a more direct involvement of healthcare practitioners in arts and humanities.

Commendable as this drive towards cross-sectional engagement may be, Health Humanities also suffers from a few minor issues which tend to undermine its own case, first among which is its lack of any clear definition of the terms it relies upon. Indeed, throughout the monograph, ‘health’ becomes almost synonymous with ‘life’ or ‘experience’, including issues ranging from death rituals, grief, mental illness and physical impairment to spirit possession and religious experience. Though this may be the direct product of the expansion of healthcare practices and ideology to more and more aspects of life, it, at times, results in a lack of clarity as to exactly what does not qualify within the scope of health humanities. This lack of clarity also affects the ways in which the authors ultimately engage with each of the fields they approach. Returning to the chapter on applied literature, for example, the reader will often stumble upon such sentences as ‘such texts can enable clinically relevant skills’ or ‘it could be that reading psychotic texts can promote the development of novel interpretative and communicative skills’, leading the authors to conclude that ‘this subject could usefully be subject to further scrutiny’ (47, my italics). Though it itself never claims to provide such analysis, this lack of direct evidence ultimately quickly undermines the noble objective Health Humanities sets for itself and leaves the reader pondering whether some of the more ambitious declarations made by the authors can actually be supported by evidence. If the authors attempt to address this issue in their chapter on practice-based evidence, which they oppose to evidence-based practice, this issue remains one of the most problematic aspects of Health Humanities and one which may discourage readers looking for a more rigorous approach to the subject.

Despite this minor shortcoming, Health Humanities provides a very valuable survey of the ways in which arts and humanities have historically contributed in the improvement of healthcare practices both in the UK and throughout the world. As a manifesto calling for the expansion of a new discipline, it clearly highlights unexplored areas of interest for future academic studies as well as potential spaces of engagement for healthcare practitioners interested in potential new approaches to health and care. An ambitious call for a ‘more radical and transformative’ approach to the intersection of humanities and healthcare (137), this slim manifesto volume does much to highlight the many ways in which our cultural understanding of health and our daily practices linked to health could easily be improved through a more careful and consistent engagement with non-medical disciplines which may still have a lot to say about the ways in which we treat ourselves.

Mathieu Donner, University of Nottingham