Critical perspectives on health and disease mf9185

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Critical perspectives on health and disease MF9185 (MEDFL5185)

Course description

Most researchers in the medical and health sciences focus on health and disease, either directly or indirectly. But what do these basic concepts mean and what do they entail? Arguing that there is hardly a single answer to these questions, this course explores a variety of theories and perspectives on health, disease, sickness, and suffering. Specifically, the course will critically examine the various ways in which human health and disease is understood and engaged with in medicine and health sciences. By applying perspectives from philosophy, history, sociology, and anthropology the course aims to make you able to view medical and health research in a broader perspective, to see your research questions in new light, and to add to your abilities to interpret and understand data.

The course will investigate concepts, theories, and models of health and disease. In particular it will scrutinize various perspectives, knowledge systems, classification systems, and metaphors. The course will also investigate health management and governance, and analyze the relationship between power, interests, and gender in health and disease.

The course will use a combination of lectures, group work, video, and reflection notes in order to engage the participants in active reflection over basic concepts in health related research. It will actively use participants own research projects as examples.

Learning outcome


This course will give you knowledge about

  • various conceptions, definitions and explanations of health and disease

  • historical perspectives on health and disease

  • power and knowledge related to health and disease

  • issues of equity and justice related to health and disease

  • critical perspectives on health governance

  • gendered perspectives on health and disease

  • minority perspectives on health and disease

  • critical perspectives on diagnoses and diagnostic systems

  • critical perspectives on evidence and clinical guidelines related to health and disease

  • anthropological and sociological perspectives on the body, health, and sickness


This course will give you skills to

  • identify and apply a range of perspectives in reflection on health and disease (and on basic concepts more generally)

  • consider own and others’ research questions and research undertakings in the light of critical theories

  • draw on critical perspectives when analysing and iterpreting data

General competence

This course will give you knowledge and skills that are helpful in

  • exercising theoretical reflexivity

  • planning research and analysing data

  • maintaining a critical attitude to established conceptions and paradigms in the life sciences and in health care

Course plan




Mon 09.00


Overview over course content

Mon 10.00

Concepts of health and disease

What is health and what is disease?

Mon 11.00

Concepts, definitions, and theories

Mon 13.00

What is the relationship between health and disease?

Mon 14.00

Health, disease, and other health concepts, such as disability, injuries, handicap, impairment, malady

Mon 15.00

Limits to disease: Lifestyle (obesity), risk, and aging

Tue 09.00

Presentation and discussion of reflection notes

Tue 10.00

Perspectives on health and disease

Perspectives on disease: Disease, Illness, Sickness

Tue 11.00

Wellbeing and suffering. Experiencing health and disease (phenomenology)

Tue 13.00

Valuing health and disease (ethics)

Sick role, social attribution, and hierarchy of diseases

Tue 14.00

Disease, status, identity, and stigma

Tue 15.00

Health, disease, and dysfunction in law

Wed 09.00

Presentation and discussion of reflection notes

Wed 10.00

Perspectives on health and disease (continued)

Enhancing health and limiting disease: Human enhancement altering conceptions of health and disease.

Wed 11.00

Historical perspectives on health and disease

Wed 13.00

Anthropological perspectives on health and disease

Wed 14.00

Biological, biomedical, and clinical perspectives on health and disease.

Wed 15.00

The practical making of health and disease: the role of technology.

Thu 09.00

Presentation and discussion of reflection notes

Thu 10.00

Power and knowledge in health and disease

Critical perspectives on diagnoses and diagnostic systems

Thu 11.00

Causation in health and disease

Objectivity, interpretation, and interests: Who owns the definitions and what do they do?

Thu 13.00

Constricting health and expanding disease: medicalization, overdiagnosis, overtreatment

Thu 14.00

Evidence and clinical guidelines related to health and disease

Thu 15.00

Gendered perspectives on health and disease

Fri 09.00

Presentation and discussion of reflection notes

Fri 10.00

Equity and justice in health and disease

Inequalities in health and disease. Burden of disease.

Global health and health governance

Health, disease, and priority setting

Fri 11.00

Minority perspectives on health and disease

Fri 13.00

Prevention of disease and promotion of health

Fri 14.00

Health, disease, agency, and responsibility

Fri 15.00


Synopsis of the course content

Continuous reflection

Each day you are asked to reflect on the relevance of the topics for your own research. You will make reflection notes which can become valuable entries for your exam (essay).


The course entails a mix of lectures, discussions, group work, and presentation of reflection notes.


Take-home course exam: write an essay that discusses your own research in the light of the perspectives discussed in the course. The essay should be between 7 and 10 pages and be submitted within 3 weeks of the end of the course. Use Times New Roman font size 12, line spacing 1.5).


Based on the literature list below, course participants will set up their own reading lists for their participation in this course, choosing 400 pages from the following literature.

Album D, Westin S. Do diseases have a prestige hierarchy? A survey among physicians and medical students. Social Science and Medicine 2007;55:182-8.

Aronowitz R. Framing disease: an underappreciated mechanism for the social patterning of health. Social science & medicine. 2008;67(1):1-9.

Aronowitz R. Making Sense of Illness: Science, Society, and Disease. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Boorse C. A Second Rebuttal on Health. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 2014; 39:683-724.

Boorse C. On the Distincion Between Disease and Illness. Philosophy and Public Affairs 1975;5: 49-68.

Carel H. Can I Be Ill and Happy? Philosophia, 2007; 35: 95–110

Clouser KD, Culver CM, Gert B. Malady. In: Almeder RF, Humber JM (eds). What is a disease? Totowa, NJ: Humana Press, 1997: 173-217. (Følgende kan være lettere å få tak i: Clouser, K. D., Culver, C. M., & Gert, B. (1981). Malady: a new treatment of disease. Hastings Cent Rep, 11(3), 29-37.)

Conrad, Peter, and Kristin K. Barker. "The social construction of illness key insights and policy implications." Journal of health and social behavior 51.1 suppl (2010): S67-S79.

Csordas, Thomas J. "Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology." Ethos 18.1 (1990): 5-47.

D’Amico R. Is disease a natural kind? Jornal of Medicine and Philosophy 1995; 20: 551-69.

Fulford KW. ‘What is (mental) disease?’: an open letter to Christopher Boorse. Journal of Medical Ethics 2001;27:80–85.

Gabbay J, Le May A. Evidence based guidelines or collectively constructed “mindlines?” Ethnographic study of knowledge management in primary care. BMJ 2004 Oct 30;329(7473):1013.

Greenhalgh, Trisha. 2014. Evidence-based medicine: A movement in crises? BMJ, 348(3725)

Haldar, Marit; Engebretsen, Eivind & Album, Dag (2015). Legitimating the illegitimate: How doctors manage their knowledge of the prestige of diseases. Health. ISSN 1363-4593. . doi: 10.1177/1363459315596798

Hesslow G. Do we need a concept of disease. Theor Med 1993; 14, 1-14.

Hofmann B. Complexity of the concept of disease as shown through rival theoretical frameworks. Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 2001; 22(3): 211-37.

Hofmann B. Disease. In: ten Have H, ed. Encyclopedia of Global Bioethics: Springer International Publishing; 2015:1-8

Hofmann B. Hva er sykdom? Oslo: Gyldendal akademisk, 2014. (229 sider)

Hofmann B. Medicalization and overdiagnosis: different but alike. Medicine, health care, and philosophy. 2016;19:253-264.

Hofmann B. Simplified models of the relationship between health and disease. Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 2005; 26(5): 355 - 377.

Hofmann B. Suffering: Harm to bodies, minds, and persons. Handbook of the Philosophy of Medicine. Berlin: Springer; 2015.

Khushf G. Expanding the horizon of reflection on health and disease. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 1995; 20: 461-473.

Kingma, E. Naturalism about Health and Disease: Adding Nuance for Progress. Journal of Medicine & Philosophy 2014; 39.6: 590-608.

Leslie, Charles. "Medical pluralism in world perspective." Social Science & Medicine. Part B: Medical Anthropology 14.4 (1980): 191-195.

Lie, Anne Helene Kveim (2012). Sykehistorienes eksempelbruk, I: Ellen Marie Krefting; Anne Eriksen & Anne Birgitte Rønning (red.), Eksemplets makt. Kjønn, representasjon og autoritet fra antikken til i dag. Spartacus. ISBN 9788230400890. Kapittel VIII. s 203 – 229

Lock, Margaret, and Patricia Kaufert. "Menopause, local biologies, and cultures of aging." American Journal of Human Biology 13.4 (2001): 494-504.

Marinker, M. Why make people patients? J Med Ethics 1975; 1(2), 81-84.

Mol, Annemarie. "The logic of care." Health and the problem of Patient Choice (2008).

Mol, Annemarie. The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Duke University Press, 2002.

Nord E. Disability weights in the Global Burden of Disease 2010: unclear meaning and overstatement of international agreement. Health Policy, 2013; 111(1), 99-104.

Nordby H. The analytic-synthetic distinction and conceptual analysis of basic health concepts. Medicine Health Care and Philosophy 2006; 9: 169–180.

Nordenfelt L. The concepts of health and illness revisited. Med Health Care Philos. 2007;10(1):5-10.

Rabinow, Paul. Artificiality and enlightenment: from sociobiology to biosociality. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2005.

Rose, N 2009, 'Normality and pathology in a biomedical age' SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW, vol 57, no. SUPPL. 2, pp. 66 - 83.

Räikkä J. The social concept of disease. Theoretical Medicine 1996;17(4): 353-61. (8 sider)

Risør, Mette Bech. "Illness explanations among patients with medically unexplained symptoms: different idioms for different contexts." Health: 13.5 (2009): 505-521.

Scheper‐Hughes, Nancy, and Margaret M. Lock. "The mindful body: A prolegomenon to future work in medical anthropology." Medical anthropology quarterly 1.1 (1987): 6-41.

Smith R. In search of “non­disease”. BMJ 2002;324;883-5.

Sontag S. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar. Strays and Giroux, 1978. (35 sider)

Tucker, Ian. "Towards the multiple body." Theory & Psychology 16.3 (2006): 433-440.

Tveråmo A et al. En integrert forståelse av subjektive lidelser i klinisk praksis. Tidsskr Nor Legeforen nr. 22, 2014; 134: 2174 – 6

Undeland M, Malterud K. The fibromyalgia diagnosis - hardly helpful for the patients? Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care, 2007; 25: 250-255.

Wakefield JC. The Concept of Mental Disorder. American Psychologist, 1992; 47: 373–388.

Worall J, Worall J. Defining disease: much ado about nothing?' Analecta Husserliana 2001; 72, 33-55.

Additional reading:

Aronowitz RA. Making Sense of Illness: Science, Society, and Disease. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K. and New York, 1998

Conrad P, Barker KK. The Social Construction of Illness: Key Insights and Policy Implications. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2010;51(1 suppl):S67-S79.

Eriksen TE, Kerry R, Mumford S, et al. At the borders of medical reasoning: aetiological and ontological challenges of medically unexplained symptoms. Philosophy, ethics, and humanities in medicine : PEHM 2013;8:11

Fabrega H, Jr. How psychiatric conditions were made. Psychiatry. 2007;70(2):130-153.

Greene J. Prescribing by numbers. Drugs and the definition of disease. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Horwitz AV. Creating Mental Illness, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Horwitz, A. V. and J.C. Wakefield. The Loss of Sadness, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Katz, S. Disiplining old age. The formation og gerontological knowledge. University Press of Virginia, 1996.

Kingma, E. 2007. What is it to be healthy? Analysis 67:128–33.

Lindstrøm J A. Why Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Is Not a True Medical Syndrome. Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry.14; 2012.1; 61-73.

Lupton D. The imperative of health: Public health and the regulated body. Vol 90: Taylor & Francis; 1995.

Martin CM, Peterson C. The social construction of chronicity--a key to understanding chronic care transformations. Journal of evaluation in clinical practice. 2009;15(3):578-585.

Mukherjee S. The emperor of all maladies. A biography of cancer. New York: Scribner, 2011.

Napier AD, Ancarno C, Butler B, et al. Culture and health. The Lancet. 2014;384(9954):1607-1639.

Nordenfelt, L.On the Nature of Health: An Action-Theoretic Perspective, 2nd edition, Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1995.

Reznek, L. The Nature of Disease, New York: Routledge, 1987.

Shilling C. Culture, the ‘sick role’ and the consumption of health. British Journal of Sociology 2002; 53: 621–638

Thagard. P.How Scientists Explain Disease, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Toombs SK. The Temporality of Illness: Four Levels of Experience. Theor Med 11, no. 3 (1990): 227-41.

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