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Review by Hilary Selznick, Email: hilaryselznick@gmail.com

Keywords: RHM, rhetoric, socio-cultural impact, representation 

Rhetoric of Health and Medicine As /Is: Theories and Approaches for the Field, edited by Lisa Melonçon, S. Scott Graham, Jenell Johnson, John A. Lynch, and Cynthia Ryan begins with the ubiquitous pain chart. A conversation ensues: “Can you choose a number on the scale that represents your pain?” asks a nurse. The patient responds, “about a 6,” as she gathers up her belongings. “Wait,” says the nurse, stopping the patient as she gets up to leave, “I can’t let you out of recovery until your pain is lower than a 6.” A few minutes pass. This time when the nurse asks, “What is your pain now?” the patient is at the ready and answers with a 4. Immediately after, the nurse dismisses the patient and wishes her a good rest of the day.

The scene above is just one of the many field notes that the patient, Judy Segal, transcribed when she began studying medical rhetoric, and the socio-cultural impact of practitioner-patient discourse and its material effects on the lives of patients, including herself. It makes sense that in a collection of essays seeking to capture the breadth and scope of the field of the rhetoric of health and medicine (RHM) by first looking at its origins, that Judy Segal, a pioneer in the field, was asked to write the book’s foreword. 

Rhetoric of Health and Medicine As /Is, is primarily about identity, and the need for accurate representation in the theoretical frameworks, methodologies, and practices of RHM. The editors urge fellow RHM scholars to, “think critically not only about what we do, and how, but also why and for whom” (3). This is a challenging task in a field described as interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and as Segal suggests, polydisciplinary (i.e., open to opportunities for alliance). However, the editors’ willingness to be self-reflective, a strength of this book, makes their mission more likely to succeed. To do this work, the editors offer up an as/is framework for the collection, explained as, “the as having field coherences, while it is diverse set of practices and partnerships” (xi), and invites its authors to reflect on this approach as they attempt to define the field.

Proceeding the foreword, the collection has three sections, each with three chapters followed by a response essay. The response essays are written by established RHM scholars and serve to synthesize the arguments of the section’s chapters while also offering up further questions for exploration. At the end of the collection an afterword appraises the essays.

In the first section, “Interdisciplinary Perspectives” scholars in closely related disciplines to RHM— health/medical humanities, disability studies, rhetoric of science—put into conversation their work within RHM. They suggest avenues for future scholarship in all of these disciplines. The authors begin with an overview of their discipline, including theoretical frameworks; core concepts and beliefs; and past, present, and possible future studies. In doing so, new RHM scholars unfamiliar with these other disciplines are invited to think of how their scholarship might also align with the aims of these fields. Next, the authors discuss their recent scholarship and suggest how RHM can extend their research. For example, in Chapter 1: “Health Humanities as an Interdisciplinary Intervention” Colleen Derkatch and Phillipa Spoel provide an overview of the health humanities and then discuss the results of their study on food activist discourse found in public health materials that promote a problematic view of a “good health citizen” and explain how RHM’s focus on rhetoric can aid in similar studies. Chapter 2: “Mediating Minds” describes the kinship between disability studies and RHM. Specifically, Drew Holladay and Margaret Price posit how the two fields open avenues for interventions in damaging institutional discourses and practices on mental illness, such as medical imaging technologies and surveillance devices that contribute to stigmatizing those with mental illness. Next, they provide a succinct yet comprehensive overview of DS that includes explanations of the field’s core concepts—social model of disability, normality, and ableism. By doing this work, RHM scholars are given the opportunity to explore how these concepts can inform their own projects. In Chapter 3, “From HeLa Cells to Henrietta Lacks,” Emily Winderman and Jamie Landau focus on the ways in which RHM can aid in the rhetoric of science’s project of rehumanizing those who were dehumanized by contemporary health-care practices, including science writing, by theorizing pathos as a method of intervention. Lastly, the response essay, written by RHM scholar John Lyne calls on other RHM scholars to think of their field as one of investigation, as exemplified by the previous chapters.

In the second section of the collection, “Representation and Online Health,” scholars working in the field of RHM examine how health and medicine is represented in online environments and suggest ways to conceptualize more nuanced representations of living with illness and disease. In the first chapter, Chapter 4: “Enactments of Self, Molly Margaret Kessler turns to how autoimmune diseases are represented in online spaces, particularly blogs written by those living with autoimmune diseases, and discusses how these spaces serve as enactments of “messy chaotic patient experiences” (85) and argues for RHM to focus on these kinds of enactments to better understand how patients make meaning of their illnesses. In Chapter 5: “Did you have sex today?” Amanda Fritz and Stacey Overholt focus on how rhetorics of quantification in health surveillance technologies such as the period-tracking app Eve, are used to reinforce neoliberal notions of good health and argue for RHM scholars to unpack similar rhetorics. Sarah Ann Singer and Jordynn Jack in Chapter 6: “Theorizing Chronicity” also reveal how online health platforms allow for more complexity in representations of illness and disease. They explain how alternate forms of representations, such as Pinterest boards made by persons with chronic illness, are needed to counteract biomedical advice and health websites that stigmatize the chronically ill population. The response essay by J. Blake Scott, emphasizes the importance of studying representations in health and medical practices and suggests additional possibilities in this area.

The third section of the collection, “Health Citizenship and Advocacy,” discusses how health citizenship is grounded in the framework of health activism and further explains how that framework coupled with a rhetorical perspective challenges existing structures, including power, race, gender, and economics, and offers solutions to public health problems. In the first chapter, Chapter 7: “Rhetoric as Rhetorical Health Citizenship” Rebecca A. Kuel, Sara A. Mehltretter Drury, and Jenn Anderson describe findings of two deliberative case studies about health issues in two different Midwest communities and show how the term “rhetorical health citizenship” can serve as a model for analyzing public health problems. In Chapter 8: “Challenging Race Disparities in and through Public Health Campaigns” Jennifer Helene Maher argues powerfully for the field of RHM to consider rhetoric as/is social justice, which she explains can actively intervene in racial health disparities and challenge injustices. She also stresses the importance of an intersectional analysis. In Chapter 9: “Decolonizing Medical Discourse through Promotora Practices in Community Health” Amy C. Hickman puts in conversation RHM with feminist decolonial theory to examine how community health workers subvert “expert” colonizing medical discourses in public health messaging. Finally, in the section’s response essay, Lisa B. Keränen applauds the scholars in this section for the work they did to foster methodologies to form a more complex understanding of health citizenship, health advocacy, and health activism.

Rhetoric of Health and Medicine As /Is ends with an afterword by Cynthia Ryan, Barbara Heifferon and T. Kenny Fountain, which appraises the work in this collection and explains how the essays extend the field while still staying true to the core commitments in which the field was founded on. Next, they suggest future lines of inquiry for the field, including a call for more work on social media’s influence on conceptions of health, illness and medicine; a deeper commitment to visual rhetorical scholarship; and further engagement with research in related disciplines to inform a RHM methodology that accounts for the “ways that gender, sex, gender expressions and race and ethnicity –bodies and identities—shape medicine, health and illness (241).

In conclusion, Rhetoric of Health and Medicine As/Is offers a rich, robust, and comprehensive overview of the rhetoric of health and medicine through a wide array of essays that provide a roadmap to an understanding of the theories, methods, and practices that comprise the field. This collection makes a valuable contribution to the field of rhetoric of health and medicine and adds to its readers’ understanding of the field’s journey and identity. And yet, the ambitiousness of the collection might leave some readers wondering where the field sets its boundaries. Also, the as/is framework developed by the editors to unify the collection, although useful at time, can also lead to confusion since contributors vary in their application of the framework. Most importantly, scholars working in the field of disability studies who are considering expanding their research into RHM, will benefit from the collection’s inclusivity and possibilities.

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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