Breathless in Århus
Like many port areas in major cities in the west, the docklands of the city of Århus in Denmark are undergoing renovation from their identity as container port to residential, commercial and educational area. Currently, as you wander around it, it seems rather quiet, transitional, unloved.
I’ve been in Århus this week (24-26 June) for the 5th Biennial Conference of the Society for the Philosophy of Science in Practice (SPSP) held at the University of Århus, up the hill from the docklands. I was invited to join a panel there on the Philosophy of Science in Clinical Practice by Sophie Van Baalen, currently a PhD student at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Our new colleague in medical humanities at Sheffield University, Annamaria Carusi, was the instigator of this invitation, as she knew of my work on Life of Breath and felt it would fit well in this conference. And indeed this should have been the case. As yet, of course, we have little to say about the actual outcomes of our research as we are still in the team-building and recruiting stage, but that very team-building, and the process of thinking about how we start to interact with clinical practitioners (and the challenges we face in working out how to do that effectively), is to my mind the very stuff that philosophers of practice might want to discuss. However, it seems that ‘practice’ is in most cases at this conference largely itself a theoretical idea, rather than something practically to be undertaken or performed.
Having said that, I have found the ideas debated hugely stimulating, and I’ve been inspired to feel that our proposed work interacting with clinical science on the Life of Breath project can be seen as part of a wider ‘practice turn’ in science studies, whose conceptual underpinning was outlined in the opening plenary by Léna Soler from the Université de Lorraine/CNRS. Léna identified three shifts that characterise this ‘turn to practice’: 1) a shift away from an idealised view of science disconnected from what scientists actually do; 2) a shift from a dedicated focus only on scientific products (such as theories) to scientific processes; and 3) a shift from thinking of science as contemplation and representation to science as intervention and transformation. This characterisation sees science as more chaotic, multifaceted, variable in space and time, contingent and open; and its development as involving multiple dimensions of scholarship and ideas, deeply intertwined, interactive, co-evolving and not easily separable in actual practice. This vision is hugely resonant with how my colleagues Viney, Callard and Woods described the practices of critical medical humanities in the recent special issue of Medical Humanities.
The experience of presenting at SPSP has raised questions for me about our positioning as medical humanities scholars in contexts where we want to disseminate our work in conferences and in journals. We need our work to be heard, read and taken up, and we want to avoid the experience of being quietened, transitional (but never moving on) and unloved. We don’t want to linger in the empty docklands of academic practice, speaking only to ourselves and with nowhere to go. This entails having a clear strategy for where we want our work on specific issues to be presented – and this will vary from project to project – but also a responsibility on us to ensure that we speak in a way that can be heard and that demands notice from our audience. We may need to be a bit like chameleons in the places we want to be heard, while continuing to be bold about the distinctiveness of the messages we wish to convey.
Jane leads Life of Breath at Durham University. She is Professor of Medical Humanities and has published in medical education, medical humanities, literature and medicine and history of medicine. She also teaches medical students and her current clinical work is in gynaecology.