Colleen Derkatch

Colleen Derkatch

Assistant Professor

Ryerson University

Colleen Derkatch

My next major project, currently in the preliminary stages, comprises a pair of studies on wellness and well-being in contemporary North American health and consumer discourse. The first study is groundwork for a single-authored book on the notion of wellness as it occurs in discourses about dietary supplements such as herbal remedies and high-dose vitamins. The central argument of this book project is that the concept of wellness has become pathologized in contemporary North American culture: wellness-oriented behaviours such as supplement-taking rely, paradoxically, on processes of surveillance and intervention that closely resemble those of the illness model they are meant partially to displace.

I begin the project from the position that wellness has been mapped conceptually onto a medically oriented illness model through processes that are fundamentally discursive in nature, centered on persuasion. Although we have collectively come to understand wellness as the absence or even opposite of illness, I argue that the illness model in fact supplies the very terms in which we think and talk about wellness—and in turn, the terms in which we think and talk about ourselves as consumers, citizens, and persons with bodies. I seek, then, to gain insight into the mechanisms of how this process of discourse-mapping occurs, using wellness as an example of a larger rhetorical phenomenon: how one discourse can be mapped onto another, seemingly oppositional discourse, even while it appears not to be so.

The second study, also in a preliminary stage, is a collaboration with Professor Philippa Spoel (Laurentian University, Canada), on healthy eating within local food movements in Ontario, Canada. In this project, we examine how the notion of nutritionism—food as a means to health and well-being—has shifted, in public health discourse promoting local foods, from the moral imperative of health citizenship toward that of environmental citizenship. In this discourse, the health of the commons itself appears to become an object of concern for public health through, for example, the promotion of shopping locally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support local economies.


rhetoric of health and medicine, rhetorical theory,  rhetorical criticism, science and technology studies, critical medicine studies, health humanities

work in relation to symposium keywords

Methods and dissemination are the words that relate most to my work.

I chose “methods” for two reasons: 1) my research has centered in part on how research methodologies come to define professional and intellectual communities, particularly in medicine (e.g., how randomized, controlled trials affect the production of medical evidence and the communities that produce and use that evidence); 2) my own practice as a researcher has been informed by my awareness of how methodology helps define/shape communities vis-à-vis humanities and social-scientific approaches to research in rhetoric.

I chose “dissemination” on a bit of whim—it’s something I am very interested in, but something I have not engaged much in to date. I don’t Tweet (in any meaningful way), I don’t blog, and I don’t spend much time reading either in either of those genres. But I do have a serious concern about our research reaching and engaging with affected stakeholders—health practitioners, patients, and consumers—as well as researchers in allied fields.

Participation Questions

  • How would you describe the relationship between medical rhetoric/health communication (however you see yourself) with other fields and sub-fields (e.g., rhetoric of science)?  For example, we struggled with what to name the symposium.  Some suggested medical rhetoric, but that doesn’t comfortably fit some from Communication nor from English Studies.  In other words, how do you align what may be a specific focus with broader disciplinary concerns and tensions?

In 2008, I moderated and co-organized with Lisa Keränen and Judy Segal a roundtable on “Rhetorics of Health and Medicine”; participants at the session included many of those for the present symposium. I prepared a report following the discussion, which I have appended below, as it may be of interest to the organizers as a snapshot of how one group of (rhetoric) scholars attempted to answer this question. The general consensus at that session was that research on the discourses of medicine might best be described not as constituting a field but a crossroads (a metaphor from Kim Emmons). Such a perspective builds disciplinary distinctions and tensions right into the fabric of the research area itself rather than situating those distinctions/tensions as in need of resolution. Our work in the area represents not a discipline but an interdiscipline (or set of interdisciplines), and so I think the ways in which we align ourselves will vary depending on our projects, methods, purposes, audiences, and stakeholders.

  • What do you see as the primary distinctions between a “humanities” orientation to research and a “social sciences” orientation? what is at stake in these different orientations?

I am a humanities-oriented researcher, and I make this distinction consciously and politically. Certainly, social scientific approaches to rhetorical questions in health and medicine are vital, and a variety of questions are best answered empirically. However, I do have concerns that a creeping scientism in the broader study of health and medical discourse could restrict the forms of critique and critical engagement that are native to much of the research in the field.

  • What are some of the most pressing questions in health and healthcare that health communication/medical rhetoric scholars can help answer?

For me, the questions that seem most pressing for scholars in rhetoric of health and medicine are those that Judy Segal has described as “prior questions”—those that “are prior to the questions typically posed by health researchers” (“Rhetoric of Health and Medicine,” The Sage Handbook of Rhetorical Studies 228). In my own research, for example, while medical researchers might ask questions about the safety and efficacy of dietary supplements, and while anthropologists might ask questions about supplement-takers’ beliefs and behaviours, I ask instead about the conditions under which health consumers come to understand supplements within an illness-oriented framework, wherein they are groomed as biomedical subjects even while they believe themselves instead to be acting within a framework of wellness. In this example, the medical perspective seeks to understand whether and how supplements act; the anthropological perspective seeks to understand how people act and interact in the social landscape; while the rhetorical perspective seeks to understand the cultural production of supplements’ own conditions of possibility.



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