Great Issues in Social Science: Disease and Human Society

HSP 155    CRN 2341
Mondays & Wednesdays
1:10 – 3:00pm
Olin 230
Dr. Yi-Li Wu

How have societies and cultures in different times and places defined what constitutes a "disease" and how it should be treated?  How have contagious illnesses and chronic maladies influenced the course of history and shaped human institutions?  These two questions are at the heart of this course on the interactions between disease and society, and we will explore them through readings and films on wide range of topics:  cholera, smallpox, cancer, tuberculosis, AIDs/HIV, obesity, alcoholism, anorexia, ADD, and more.

Through these case studies, we will examine the thorny ways in which society and disease can mutually shape one another.  For example, how did the Black Death lead to the rise of English as an important language?  Why was it so difficult for 19th century Londoners to believe that cholera was transmitted by infected water?  What are the economic and political implications of defining alcoholism and obesity as genetic disorders rather than as personal moral failings?  How does defining breast cancer and anorexia as "female" disorders and attention deficit disorder and sexual dysfunction as "male" disorders affect patterns of diagnosis and treatment?  Has there in fact been an explosion of autism in the last twenty years, and if so, why can't medical professionals agree on its scope and cause?  How and when did psychiatrists officially stop defining homosexuality as a mental illness?

Course assignments include reading response papers and short analytical essays.  You will also write a research paper which examines one of the following issues:  (1) a condition that used to be considered a "disease" but no longer is, or (2) a condition that is now considered a "disease" but wasn't before, (3) a "disease" whose definition and therapy is contested across historical or cultural lines, or (4) a "disease" that has produced new social practices, political alignments, and/or institutions.