Shame, Stigma and Personal Identity

Concepts of shame and stigma have shaped our responses to disease throughout history, whether the diseases themselves are associated with stigma (for example, leprosy), or the consequences of disease-related behaviours cause shame (addiction).

Illustration for John Milton's "Paradise Lost" by Gustave Doré, 1866.

Illustration for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” by Gustave Doré, 1866.

These personal responses have profound impact on the ability of subjects to access treatment and engage with therapies with confidence. Many diseases with psychological components are associated with complex sensations of stigma and shame that are rarely vocalized, poorly understood, and which change over time and with culture and context. Their interaction with medicine, the law, and outcomes requires a new multidisciplinary unique vision to identify, dissect and explore their historical, cultural, emotional and clinical perspectives. Medical Humanities Sheffield was created specifically to enable these translational networks. This interdisciplinary network will study multiple diseases and use interdisciplinary techniques to inform and understand this critical pathway.

The primary aim of this network is to investigate the relationship between disease, the changing nature of both ‘expert’ knowledge and public opinion about the disease, and feelings of shame and stigma engendered by the disease over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This involves, first, establishing the contemporary intersections and tensions between medical knowledge and practice, popular conceptions and attitudes, and the emotional state of patients. It involves, second, placing these current scenarios and situations in meaningful historical and cultural perspective. Third, the opportunity to link the studentships together in a network means that there is an in-built comparative dimension to the project. This means that students and supervisors of all three projects can learn from each other methodologically and analytically and consider their diseases not in isolation – as is usually the case – but in relation to each other. A fourth concern is that these multi-disciplinary, historically informed, and properly comparative studies will feed into clinical practice and improve relations between doctors and patients.

The diseases that are the focus of this network are alcohol related liver disease, non-epileptic attack disorder, and visible skin conditions. All of these are being examined with different tools from unique perspectives, to come to an understanding of shame and stigma that will cross boundaries and bring the historical and contemporaneous patient voice into sharp relief within established narrative and psychological frameworks. The supervisory team of each of the studentships involves a clinician with first-hand experience of treating the condition plus colleagues from the Arts and Humanities and/or Social Sciences supervising the students in recovering and dealing with the requisite historical, cultural, and emotional contexts.