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Research Cluster Questions the Meaning of Health in a Global Context

A newly formed research cluster, “What Does Health Mean Today?,” aims to develop critical interdisciplinary and comprehensive approaches that complicate notions of what health means – for both individuals and communities – in a rapidly globalizing world. Professors Cathy Kudlick (History) and Li Zhang (Anthropology) serve as the faculty contacts for the research cluster.

“What Does Health Mean Today” evolved from a Davis Humanities Institute Faculty Research Seminar in Spring 2010, in which seven faculty members from different departments spent a quarter discussing the theme of health and medicine in a global context. The participating faculty enjoyed the seminar so much that they wanted to keep meeting to discuss each other’s work. “We knew that health was becoming more visible and important as an area of research within the university, so we thought it would be a welcome group to institutionalize,” said Lucy Corin, fiction writer and associate professor of English. Forming a research cluster also allowed the seminar group to open the conversations to include graduate students and other participants.

The cluster’s goal is to think about how the meanings of health are changing across the world and, specifically, to understand how an emerging global medicine comes together with heterogeneous cultural beliefs and practices to influence the development of structures and systems of health, patient subjectivities, and diagnosis. The cluster hopes to bring together humanities and social science perspectives to generate a more comprehensive approach to thinking about questions of embodiment, cure, and well-being. “One of the best things about the faculty research seminar and the research cluster is the fact that they’re interdisciplinary forums,” commented Zhang. “It’s fabulous to have discussions with people from the humanities and social sciences. We’re all so busy with our own departmental work, so this bridge is normally hard to build, but interdisciplinary perspectives are important.”

Faculty and graduate students participating in the cluster come from anthropology, history, sociology, English, Latin@ Studies, American Studies, and the University Writing Program. The research cluster also hopes to build connections and collaborations with the UC Davis Medical School and with the University of California’s One Health Project, which focuses on the intersections between human health, animal health, and environmental health to think about health more holistically.

This year, due to budget constraints and faculty workload, the research cluster has planned a limited number of public events. The first event was a visit in early January by Tanya Luhrmann, Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University, who participated in a workshop on her work on the relationship between religious beliefs and psychiatry and who also gave a public lecture. Rima Praspaliauskiene, a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology whose dissertation examines informal payments in health care in post-socialist Lithuania, attended Luhrmann’s workshop on her paper “Hallucinations and sensory overrides.” “I found it very useful to think about the arbitrariness of mental illnesses that are very real and yet constituted by cultural contexts,” commented Praspaliauskiene. “How is a diagnosis constructed and under what conditions? How do madness, religion, and medicalization overlap? In relation to my own work, it made me think: who becomes a patient and what constitutes care for those defined as mentally ill?“

The cluster’s second event will take place in early May, and will be a workshop with Cristiana Giordana, cluster member and assistant professor of Anthropology, on one of her book chapters in progress. Then in fall 2011, the cluster plans to host a visit from a psychiatrist from the UC Davis Medical Center for a discussion on his work. In their future activities, the cluster also hopes to invite graduate students to present their work for discussion and feedback.

Faculty and graduate students interested in learning more about the “What Does Health Mean Today?” research cluster or in becoming a member should contact Li Zhang at lizhang@ucdavis.edu.

This page was last updated: February 15, 2012



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