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Introduction: Looking within from without

Sociology of Diagnosis

ISBN: 978-0-85724-575-5, eISBN: 978-0-85724-576-2

Publication date: 3 August 2011


Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the many techniques used by physicians and psychiatrists to diagnose patients involved external and highly public examination. Typically conducted as a lecture to other medical experts and students, the patient was placed in the center of a round room with onlookers arranged in tiered seating to guarantee an unobstructed view. As the lead physician detailed the list of symptoms, using the patient's body as an illustration, observers witnessed the behavioral signs for themselves and discussed the possible underlying conditions or pathologies. This process of consultation and naming worked to increase the relative reliability among experts and bolster the professional reputations of medicine and psychiatry alike (Conrad & Schneider, 1992; Gillis, 2006; Grob & Horwitz, 2010). As researchers have noted (Aronowitz, 2001; Foucault, 1973), this change from focusing on disparate, idiosyncratic symptoms as expressions of individual illness to a system that recognized disease states comprised of symptom clusters marks a historical turning point in the history of medicine. The shift toward a classification scheme that linked medicine with science and technology bolstered medical authority and the power of physicians. In addition to professional credentials, accumulated knowledge, and institutional legitimacy, the authority of modern medicine both rests on and is expressed by medicine's decisive power to name and categorize through diagnosis (Jutel, 2009). Even as medical prestige has eroded, ceding some of its power to other entities,1 physicians remain the final arbiter of official medical categories (Pescosolido, 2006), judges of what is, and what is not, a “real” diagnosis. In the diagnostic process, one looks within to reveal the nature of disease from without – empirical observation becomes immutable fact. Of course, as critical perspectives on medicine have long pointed out (Conrad & Schneider, 1992; Zola, 1972), the scientific “fact” of one time and place is the mythology or ignorance of another. Diagnosis, as both category and process (Blaxter, 1978), is infused with all manner of things social, historical, and cultural. This volume explores some of these infusions. In so doing, it aims to clarify and contribute to the emerging sociology of diagnosis – an endeavor first called for by Brown (1990), but more recently revived by Jutel (2009).


Hutson, D.J. (2011), "Introduction: Looking within from without", McGann, P. and Hutson, D.J. (Ed.) Sociology of Diagnosis (Advances in Medical Sociology, Vol. 12), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. xxix-xxxvii.



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