21A.215 | Spring 2012 | Undergraduate

Disease and Health: Culture, Society, and Ethics


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


This course looks at medicine from a cross-cultural perspective, focusing on the human, as opposed to biological, side of things. Students examine the role of society and culture in sickness and healing, learning how to analyze and contextualize various kinds of medical practice. Particular emphasis is placed on Western (bio-) medicine; students examine the foundational premises of biomedicine and its understanding of disease, health, body, and mind. Students learn about medical institutions (e.g., hospitals, medical schools) and how they articulate with other institutions, national (e.g., pharmaceutical and insurance companies, Congress), and international (e.g., World Health Organization). Other topics include notions about symbolic healing (and harming), shamanism, organ harvesting, and new reproductive technologies.


In addition to doing all of the reading (approximately 100 pages a week), you will write three short (7+ pp.) papers on topics assigned during the semester. The first two will be returned to you for revision and re-read and graded at that point. There is no midterm or final exam. In addition to the formal papers, you will write a brief Reader Response to one of the readings each week. These should be an actual response to the piece—your own reaction to it, rather than a summary or analysis. They should be posted on the course’s site in the Forum section by 9:00 AM on the day of the class in which the reading is assigned. These are not graded, but they are required. Discussion of Reader Responses will constitute part of class discussion on Thursdays.

Late papers lose a letter grade per day unless you have secured an written extension from me at least 24 hours prior to the due date, along with a new due date. Paper extensions can be obtained via e-mail.

Attendance is required. The course’s discussion component is crucial; you must come to class prepared to discuss the assigned reading. Do not take this course if you plan on cutting classes—you will receive a failing grade.

Grading will be based as follows: participation in class discussion and reading response write-ups (collectively) 25%; each paper: 25%. Students will present a summary of their third paper in class at the end of the course. These oral presentations will not be graded.

Criteria for HASS CI Subjects

Communication intensive subjects in the humanities, arts, and social sciences should require at least 20 pages of writing divided among 3–5 assignments. Of these 3–5 assignments, at least one should be revised and resubmitted. HASS CI subjects should further offer students substantial opportunity for oral expression, through presentations, student-led discussion, or class participation. In order to guarantee sufficient attention to student writing and substantial opportunity for oral expression, the maximum number of students per section in a HASS CI subject is 18, except in the case of a subject taught without sections (where the faculty member in charge is the only instructor). In that case, enrollments can rise to 25, if a writing fellow is attached to the subject.

Warning: Plagiarism

Plagiarism, presenting someone else’s work as your own, comes in two forms, both extremely serious. The first involves using the words of a source, exactly or in very close paraphrase, without proper citation. If you are citing word-for-word, it does not suffice to footnote the source you must use quotation marks. If you are paraphrasing someone’s work, you must fully cite the work, including the exact page number of the page on which the material appears. Do not think that just because work is “in the public domain, “on the Internet, etc., you do not need to provide a full citation. If it’s someone else’s work, then it’s not your work and you need to fully cite the source.

The second form of plagiarism involves taking ideas from a source without footnoting the source.

Although sanctions for plagiarism in this course depend on its severity, failing the course is a distinct possibility. I have failed students in the past; some have also had to appear before the Committee on Discipline. Bottom line: this course takes plagiarism very seriously. Suspicious papers receive immediate attention.

If you have questions about how to cite sources, see me. The readings for the course provide good examples of proper citation practice.


1 Introduction to the Course  
2 Introduction to Basic Issues  
3 “Irrational” Beliefs in Disease Causation and Treatment  
4 “Irrational” Beliefs, Continued  
5 Symbolic Healing and Harming  
6 The Cultural Construction of Disease  
7 Theoretical Frames  
8 Meaning, Medicine, and Illness Topics for 1st paper discussed in class
9 The Institution(s) of Medicine I Watch: Back from Madness
10 The Institution(s) of Medicine II 1st paper due
11 The Institution(s) of Medicine III  
12 The Institution(s) of Medicine IV 1st paper handed back
Watch: Deadly Deception
13 The Institution(s) of Medicine V Topics for second paper discussed in class
14 The Institution(s) of Medicine VI Revised 1st paper due
Watch: The Search for Satan
15 The Institution(s) of Medicine VII  
16 Health, Disease and Healing in the Larger Social Context I 2nd paper due
Watch: Simple Courage
17 Health, Disease and Healing in the Larger Social Context II  
18 Health, Disease and Healing in the Larger Social Context III 2nd paper handed back
19 Health, Disease and Healing in the Larger Social Context IV Topics for 3rd paper discussed in class
20 Health, Disease and Healing in the Larger Social Context V Revised 2nd paper due
Optional: 3rd paper draft due
21 Stigma, Responsibility, and Blame  
22 The Challenge of Chronic Illness Optional: 3rd paper draft handed back
23 New Reproductive Technologies Watch: The Lynchburg Story
24 New Medical Technologies 3rd paper due
25 Student Presentations Reports on Third Paper in class
26 Student Presentations (cont.) Reports on Third Paper in class (cont.)

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2012
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Written Assignments