Jonathan M. Metzl
Frederick B. Rentschler II Professor of Sociology and Medicine, Health and Society
Director, Center for Medicine, Health and Society
How do political forces and cultural anxieties shape notions of illness and health?
My research investigates the changing nature of psychiatric discourse over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I study the ways global meanings of mental illness and mental health are shaped by a set of mutually affecting relationships among cultural, medical, biotechnological, and socio-economic domains. In my experiences as a practitioner of psychiatry, I have seen how progressive understandings of biological bases of illness, increasingly objective diagnostic criteria, and newer generations of psychotropic medications have led to improved treatment options. At the same time, as a scholar of the history of these treatment options, I also believe that rhetorics of biological or objective science can block access to the complex, contradictory meanings— particularly meanings based on categories of race, gender, and class—that psychiatric interventions represent for doctors, patients, and the larger contexts in which their interactions are situated.
I thus study descriptions of psychiatry in diverse settings such as hospital archives, protest memoirs, oral interviews, films, and pharmaceutical advertisements to understand how psychiatric diagnoses and treatments accrue cultural meanings in ways that can have profound clinical, social, and indeed political implications.