Colleen Derkatch

derkatchTitle: Assistant Professor

University: Ryerson University





Description of Work:

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.

Symposium Submission:

Methodology and Disciplinary Identity: Rhetorical Research on Discourses of “Wellness”

Drawing on the example of my current research on contemporary public discourse about “wellness,” I want to offer what may be a counter-case regarding questions of methodology among those who study health and medical discourse: that we gain little in trying to debate, define, or categorize the range of approaches we take in our research, and that we might do better to get on with the work in whatever form the research takes. Our scholarship is so inherently inter-/multi-/transdisciplinary, and its audiences, topics, and purposes so diverse that our methods often shift from project to project, and even within different parts of the same project. These diverse, shifting approaches are, in my view, exactly what is generative about our research on discourses of health and medicine.

This is not to say that there is no value in taking stock of the range of approaches we take in our research or in sharing/borrowing resources but we should not do it with the hope that we can constitute ourselves as a demarcated *field*, as something that coheres into a recognizable, mappable entity with defined (if flexible) borders and identifiable member-citizens. As a researcher, I certainly have felt the pull of wanting to be able to point on a map and say “I am a member of *this* community.” Method was of naturally central to my concern: what is it that scholars in this field do—and how do they do it? Along with that concern came questions regarding disciplinary identity (“What do I call myself?”), professionalization (“Where will I get a job?”), and knowledge mobilization (“What conferences should I attend? Where should I publish?”). These are not unimportant matters, particularly when it comes to mentoring graduate students, securing funding, and establishing critical mass on campuses and at conferences.

And yet, I worry less now about whether and how research on discourses of health and medicine constitutes a demarcated field and have instead come to consider the ways in which—to borrow a useful metaphor from Kim Emmons—research in this area operates instead as a *crossroads*, a state of in-betweenness characterized not by recognizable landmarks and delineated spaces but by movement and interactivity. One of the things I like best about this metaphor, even if I am not fully committed to it, is that whichever crossroads you move through at a given time depends on where you are going—what questions you’re asking in your research, why, how, and with/for whom you are trying to answer them. Our methods of research should depend foremost not on our disciplinary or community affiliations but on what will best help us address the questions we have or the pathways we want to open.

Drawing on Judy Segal’s (2008) assessment of research on the various discourses of health and medicine, I will note that scholars in the area approach their work from all sides, from classically informed rhetorical criticism to critical and cultural studies; from qualitative research (e.g., ethnographies, interviews, observation) to quantitative surveys and outcomes measures; from “pure” approaches to hybrid approaches that draw on any and all of these methods. Some might see this range of approaches to research as capricious but, for me, the range of approaches is itself precisely why the work we do is valuable. For most of us, our work is guided, in some way, by a will toward amelioration: we see a problem and we bring our particular forms of expertise and methods to bear on it. Some researchers seek to do so explicitly, by working with health practitioners or patients, for example, to improve processes or outcomes; others seek to do so indirectly, by isolating and describing how a problem occurs or what some of its effects might be so that others whose research is more applied may take them up is worth noting, too, that some of the most important recent examinations of the rhetorical dimensions of health and medicine is by scholars who would not consider themselves rhetoricians at all: Joe Dumit, Carl Elliott, Nikolas Rose….

When I think about the place of method in research on health and medical discourse (and the anxieties surrounding it), I am often reminded of Theodore Porter’s writing on quantification in research cultures, particularly in the sciences. Porter was writing on how numbers are deployed to bolster the boundaries of “weak” disciplinary communities, such as medicine and psychology, which rely on science but are not themselves unequivocally scientific. He observes: “Scientific knowledge is most likely to display conspicuously the trappings of science in fields with insecure borders, communities with persistent boundary problems” (230). I would argue that method itself has similarly come to stand as a marker of insecurity in many disciplines, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. Although I fully endorse (and frequently draw upon) empirical research on health and medical discourse, I worry that, as we collaborate more with researchers and practitioners in the sciences and in medicine, we increasingly begin to sound and act like them. Of course, to gain traction in those disciplines, we need to speak fluently in their native languages, particularly in the language of numbers. However, I equally believe that those of us who engage in humanities-based methods of research (in my case, rhetorical-cultural analysis) ought not to shrink from or apologize for our pointedly non-scientific approaches. What we need to do, instead, is learn to articulate our own methods more explicitly, explaining their antecedents, illustrating their effects, and explaining in concrete terms why they are important.

My paper will draw on a recent, successful application for a major federal grant and the research I am conducting through that grant on rhetorics of wellness to illustrate some ways that humanities-based scholars of health and medical discourse can tweak how we frame our methods and communicate our results so that they gain traction across intersecting audiences without surrendering the critical distance and fine-grained analysis our own methods afford us.