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SOC212H1 Chapter Notes -Michel Foucault, Alternative Medicine, Normative Social Influence

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William Magee

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Cancer diagnosis as discursive capture: Phenomenological repercussions of being
positioned within dominant constructions of cancer
- paper discuss challenges of being diagnosed with cancer, reviews dominant discourses about cancer in
western industrialize cultures
-looks at implications how cancer may be experienced and how it may be lived with (social/psychological
-this paper is concerned with the social and psychological consequences of being positioned within some
of the dominant discourse associated with cancer diagnosis in contemporary english-speaking western
industrialized cultures ie. UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand
-author reflects on own experiences as a cancer patient, trying to make sense of situation and what
resource were available to her, how people treated the cancer topic, how she understood it
The role of diagnosis
- research into the social processes associated with diagnosis has explored the place of diagnosis in the
institution of medicine, the social framing of disease definitions, the means by which diagnosis confers
authority on medicine, and how that authority is challenged.
- focus on how a medical diagnosis positions the patient in relation to ‘healthy’ others in society rather
than in relation to medical professionals which appears to be a more common focus in social research in
this area
The role of Discourse
- according to Foucault, " Foucauldian point of view, discourses make available to us particular
(historically and culturally specific) ways of ordering and making sense of the world including ourselves.
They make available discursive spaces, or 'positions’, which we can occupy and this has implications for
how others will perceive us and how we will experience ourselves.
- discursive context for cancer: people experience being diagnosed with cancer includes increasingly
frequent media coverage of cancer 'survivor stories 'of celebrities and ordinary people widely available
public health/health promotion materials concerned with cancer prevention and lifestyle advice as well as
popularizations of scientific articles in the media
-Susan Suntag: giving a disease moral meaning is a punitive process which positions those who are
diagnosed with the disease as culpable, as tainted, as shamed.
Discursive constructions of cancer and its meanings
The cultural imperative to 'Think Positively
- Thinking positively means demonstrating faith in the belief that things will turn out well and that every
problem can be solved. In relation to a cancer diagnosis, death as a possible outcome is not to be
acknowledged or talked about.
- cancer is constructed as a wake-up call’ to rethink one’s life, an opportunity to make a fresh start and to
live a better, healthier life.
-studies which compared reactions to the use of the terms‘ cancer survivor’ and ‘cancer patient’, a large
sample of undergraduate students attributed consistently more positive qualities to someone described as
a 'cancer survivor’ (as opposed to cancer patient’) and they expressed more positive attitudes towards
->This suggests that a 'positive stance towards having cancer, one which focuses upon survival
and active living (‘survivor’) as opposed to one which embraces passivity and suffering (‘patient’), is
socially desirable and rewarded.
- Cancer as War’ constructs cancer as an enemy who must be fought at all costs and by any means
necessary. It instructs patients to not give up the fight, positioning the body as a battlefield
-cancer is constructed as a challenge to the human intellect and to science which can potentially be
Cancer as a moral concern
-cancer is frequently constructed as a sign of degeneration, corruption and decay, indicative of the cancer
’s inner weakness and self-destructiveness
-that it is ‘home grown’, the product of spontaneous cell growth; the role of lifestyle and behavioural
factors), popular mind/body metaphors associated with complementary medicine and ‘New Age’ thinking
- cancer as such is being constructed as intimately connected with, as 'occasioned by’, the self and,
therefore, as a sign of some (moral) failing on the part of the patient
Managing responsibility
-attributes ultimate responsibility to the patient for the outcome of their battle where, morally speaking,
not giving up is as highly valued as winning
-it can be difficult for the patient to separate ‘self’ and ‘disease’ leading to a sense of overall corruption
and inadequacy for the cancer patient to gain social
approval, s/he needs to reject his/her former self and to engage in a process of moral renewal. Refusal to
do this may mean losing social support and missing out on empathy
The experience of being constructed by and positioned within cancer discourse
-the loss of hair was feared as it was seen to impart information about their disease status to others and,
therefore, to lead to them being identifiable as a ‘person-with-cancer’
->Such an identification, in turn, led to a loss of control over how to define oneself and over how
one was treated by others (eg. with unwanted attention, with sympathy
- participants experienced a loss of control over who they were and who they could be within a social
context. For some participants, their attempts to regain control led them to avoid social interactions.
- Being identifiable as a ‘person-with-cancer’ was experienced as stigmatising and the visible signs of
being treated for cancer exposed them to invasions of privacy