Correspondence of the Riddell Family – Hull University Archives

In exploring fluctuating bodies, my current attention is on mental exhaustion and how the mental becomes physical and vice versa, through my exploration I’ve come across the correspondence of the Riddell family in hull University Archives. The correspondence is of a personal nature and reflects the lives of the Riddells as British citizens in India, the correspondence covers everyday topics and provides insight to social values and the conduct and beliefs of British upper class citizens living in India.

Brief biographical information about Mr and Mrs Riddell

Mr George Dalziel Riddell was born on 4 May 1836, the youngest child of Robert (Surgeon of Earlstown) and Agnes Dalziel Riddell. George  married Laura Mary Gosling the daughter of General H.C. Gosling of the Madras Army.

Children: Laura Anne Susan Dalziel Riddell  was born 28 April 1870, Henry Charles Riddell was born 4 August 1871, George Augustus Riddell was born 24 March 1874

Why certain correspondence is of interest

While the correspondence takes place within the 18th and not the 19th century and is not geographically specific to Britain and Ireland, the social norms of disability and ill health would still hold some if not all of the cultural understandings of the British and Irish of the time, despite the fact Mr and Mrs Riddell lived in India. However, it could be interesting to compare their understanding of illness while in India to a couple with a similar socio-economic background who remained within Britain, as certain cultural interpretations of illness and disability in India might have altered their understandings somewhat.

Interestingly, the couple appear to have flouted some of the expectations of the day, for example, in early June 1887, George was given a posting to Mandalay in Burma as Deputy Principal Medical Officer with the rank of Surgeon Colonel. However there was a ban on women entering Mandalay and so the couple faced being separated, however in defiance of this rule they they sailed up the Irrawaddy to Mandalay regardless.

From 1888 to 1889/90 the couple experience numerous stressful situations, which will perhaps be the foundation upon which George will later face ill health/mental exhaustion. On the 4th August 1888 was promoted and became the Principal Medical Officer of Upper Burma and Deputy Surgeon General of Mandalay. With this promotion came an increased workload and Georges wife writes letters expressing her concern for the additional workload on his health, and the impact it will have on her and their children. Less than a year later, on the 12 May 1889, a relief Brigade Surgeon, Suffrein from Kamptee, had been appointed to take over George duties.

With his health deteriorating, the stresses faced by George and Laura did not diminish, despite the arrival of assistance. In June 1889, a former clerk, Mr Castor who wanted payment for contributing to the annual report George had submitted ( as well as a subsequent trial for attempt at extortion and criminal intimidation). A settlement was reached eventually, however once again, further stress had been placed on George and this was only exasperated by Mr Caster complaining to the Surgeon General about Georges conduct. Their misfortune continued and in July 1889, they went to Rangoon via a steam down the Irrawaddy and across the Bay of Bengal, however this journey was not without issue and while crossing the Bay of Bengal, they passed through a cyclone and nearly didn’t safely complete the journey.

The couple at this point were both facing health issues, and a letter of 27 July 1889 reflected their request to leave to Bangalore as a result of their health problems and ‘mental exhaustion’. Laura was very concerned in correspondence, noting her worries for her husband because he seems to be experiencing low moods and continuous poor health. By 29 January 1890, leave had finally been granted, and the couple hoped that they would eventually be able to return to England.

I believe that the correspondence might provide some interesting insight as well as widen my understanding of the language of illness during this period and could assist me with future research. The correspondence appears to be an interesting area to explore, if only to form a firmer foundation on mental exhaustion.


Description of ‘Correspondence of the Riddell Family, 1882-1890. Hull University Archives, Hull History Centre. GB 50 U DRI’ on the Archives Hub website, [], (date accessed :13/11/2018)


Secondary Sources

Secondary sources come in a wide variety of forms and are a source of information that was created later by someone who did not experience/participate first-hand or participate in the historical events being researched. Secondary sources tend to be academic works, and can take the form of short essays, articles and books/mongraphs that summarise primary sources – though sometimes these will actually summarise other secondary sources, so care is required – if a text is based entirely off secondary sources then it is a tertiary source – (Brundage, 2013).

However,  not all the authors of secondary sources are academics, some secondary sources are produced by journalists and biographers etc. As such, secondary sources can range from detailed and specific accounts of a singular incident  to more general accounts of a historical era. It can be useful to regard the biographical information of the author of a secondary source to consider any biases or intentions they might imbue their writing with. A good rule of thumb is to consider secondary sources published by a university press, or accredited journal, as these will have gone through a peer review process and will likely be a suitable, valid, and credible source.

The authors of secondary sources might have used primary sources to try and persuade the reader of their argument about an event or to attribute a meaning to it, therefore a researcher needs to be careful when considering which secondary sources to include, because they can impact and influence your investigation and work. While a secondary source can have a narrow angle or perspective, they can also, according tot Barton (2005) provide a more complete account than primary sources alone. Despite the biases, intentions of the authors and the potential for errors, secondary sources will have usually used a lot of primary sources to create their account of a historical event or period. As such, some consider secondary sources, when reflected on carefully, as more reliable than a sole primary source.


Barton, K.C., 2005. Primary sources in history: Breaking through the myths. Phi Delta Kappan86(10), pp.745-753.

Brundage, A., 2013. Going to the sources: A guide to historical research and writing. John Wiley & Sons.





Primary Sources

“The historian’s passion for manuscripts and sources is not the desire to
confirm facts and dates…but the desire to bring himself into a genuine
relationship with the actual…the last word of a historian is not some fine
firm general statement; it is a piece of detailed research.”
-Herbert Butterfield (1901-1979) (Butterfield 1950 as cited by Eamon, 2006)

According to Brundage (2013), written primary sources have two major categories: manuscripts and published sources. Primary sources have a pedagogic value and encourage critical thinking skills that encourages the researcher to consider issues such as collective memory, bias, selection of texts, context and political intentions (Eamon, 2006).


This can be a handwritten or typed record that hasn’t been reproduced in vast quantities for public consumption. These sources can range from the equivalent of a persons notes on a speech, a meeting that was held or the more everyday and mundane an a shopping list. They tend to be private records, that weren’t meant for a wider public view, for example a library’s collection of the letters or a diary that a historical figure wrote.

The traditional abbreviations for a manuscript is MS and MSS for manuscripts.

Published Sources

Published sources, according to Brundage (2013) have two categories. They can be manuscript materials that were initially private, but were published after the death of the writer, for example the Diary of Anne Frank, or they are published material that was intentionally public, for examples newspapers and autobiographies.

Even with published sources it is important to be critical of the intentions of the authors, for example, while the manuscripts may not have been intended to be public, newspapers and autobiographies might have the agenda of the writer fueling the information provided. Careful interpretation is required to ensure that the true picture is formed, with the context of not only the era, the politics of the writer and other external factors such as the modern bias of the researcher who reads the text must be considered and reflected upon.

Autobiographies are a particularly problematic area, because the reader is depending on the ability of the writer to recall certain areas of their life clearly and not to embellish or redact certain information from the text in order to better present themselves and others or aid the narrative of their life story. While this doesn’t exclude autobiographies from consideration as a primary source, careful reflection while reading is essential. One factor that aids biographies as a primary source is that the text can help provide an insight into the personality of the writer and provide the researcher a much clearer picture of the historical figure.

Diaries can be a useful area as they were written at the time of the events occurring and were not intended for public consumption and even if published after the death of the writer, they may provide a less biased or embellished view of the writer than an autobiography might. However, a persons beliefs, political leanings etc can alter the text as well and while the text is contemporary to the events and not affected by the issues of memory, many published texts are selected writings and do not provide a full picture. As such, there is a bias in the selection process of which writings make it to the published work. Collingwood (1956) as cited by Eamon (2006) argued that not understanding the artifactual and critical contextual elements of a text led was dangerous and led to a , “scissors-and-paste” history that lacks the finesses of proper research and robs not only the researcher but others of factual representations and understanding of the past.

Magazines, Newspapers and Government reports were always intended to be public, unlike diaries that are published after death. It is vital to consider the political intentions of those writing such pieces, because many of these texts were intended to sway public opinion at the time of writing. Both Brundage (2013) and Barton (2005) show that it would be remiss of any researcher to rely solely on one article or text about a certain event, because it would only provide the viewpoint of one author, who may or may not have been able to see or hear everything that happened.,Researchers must seek multiple texts to create a well rounded retelling of a historical event, while considering the biases of those authors.

“Ultimately, we cannot depend on any single source — primary or secondary — for reliable knowledge; we have to consult multiple sources in our quest to develop historical understanding” (Barton, 2005 pg 746)

While a researcher must view the text from the viewpoint of the writer and the influences upon them, for example, a writer discussing disability in the 19th century and the influence on the enlightenment period and the notion of evolutionary throwbacks resulting in physical disability. However, knowledge and empathy for those of that era and their thoughts and viewpoints must be balanced against modern understanding and consideration of questions and viewpoints that those in the 19th century wouldn’t have considered.


Barton, K.C., 2005. Primary sources in history: Breaking through the myths. Phi Delta Kappan86(10), pp.745-753.

Brundage, A., 2013. Going to the sources: A guide to historical research and writing. John Wiley & Sons.

Eamon, M., 2006. A” Genuine Relationship with the Actual”: New Perspectives on Primary Sources, History and the Internet in the Classroom. The History Teacher39(3), pp.297-314.



Disability in the Bible

The Bible isn’t exempt from references to disability, and for the most part in the Old Testament, the Bible does not view disability in a positive manner. In the Bible as a whole, disability is viewed as a disease/illness (Encyclopaedia Judaica: 1972), with the most common forms of disability in the Bible being:

  1. Blindness (Deuteronomy 27:18, Job 29:15, Isaiah 29:18)
  2. Deafness (Mark 9.25, Isaiah 35:5, Luke 7:21-23)
  3. Leprosy (Matthew 8:1-4, Mark 1:40–45, Luke 5:12–16)
  4. Paralysis (Matthew 15:30-31, Luke 7:21-23, 1 Samuel 25:37)
  5. Dumbness (Luke 1.20, Matthew 9:27-34, Matthew 15:30-31)

However according to Otieno (2009) blindness/visual impairment was the most common form of disability in antiquity. However, while some references in the Bible show blindness arising due to old age, for example, Isaac (Gen. 27:1), Jacob (Gen. 48:10), Eli (1 Sam 3:2 and 4:15), and Ahijah the Shilomite (1Kings 14:4) disability is not seen as due to natural causes, but instead is seen as God’s will. In the Old Testament, God caused disabilities in people due to sin or disobedience to God’s will, the idea being that having enough faith and belief in God could fix or cure the person of their disability,

“He said, “If you listen carefully to the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you.” Exodus 15:26

The idea of faith being required to stave off disability is also reflected in the New Testament, where those who believe are cured, and is seen today with faith healers who will claim that people wont be healed if they lack faith,

“Jesus said to the woman, You are now well because of your faith. May God give you peace! You are healed, and you will no longer be in pain.” – Mark 5:34

Faith alone is not enough to prevent disability however, because like in the Old Testament, sin continues to be attributed to disability in the New Testament. The focus on sin in the healing stories of Jesus is according to Grant (1997:77), evidence that they “served as proof of the moral imperfection of people with disabilities.” to those who read the Bible, and in doing so laid the unconscious foundation in the minds of the reader that not only could disability be fixed (medical model of disability) but it was the fault of the person, and created an unsympathetic view of the disabled person. For example, in John 9:1-3, the disciples who followed Jesus showed their belief that sin was linked to disability with the question they asked Jesus,

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

This question continues the biblical theme that disability is a result of God punishing the sinner, and it is reflected again when Jesus heals a man at the pool of Bethesda,

“See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse will happen to you” (John. 5:14).

Eiesland (1994:73-74) identified the main theological themes that led to discrimination and prejudice towards disabled people. According to Eiesland (1994) there were three main theological themes that impacted disability issues:

  1. Disability was seen as a result of sin. Therefore to become disabled or to have disabled children was a result of wrongdoing or a lack of faith. Due to the concept that humans were made in the image of God, a physical disability that altered that concept meant that disabled people were prevented from positions of leadership.
  2. Disability was sometimes considered to be a sign of virtuous suffering. This theological concept implies that a person had to suffer a disability in order to purify the righteous, according to Eiesland (1994), the ‘suffering’ of a disability was to purify the righteous through humbling them to accept the social barriers of disability for the sake of obedience and devotion to God.
  3. The third theological concept was that which linked disability to charity. This is an area that Eiesland (1994) referred to as, ‘disabling theology’ because through charitable activity, disabled people might attempt and succeed in creating social justice for themselves, an early form of activism, however in doing so, they are segregated from society socially, politically and economically because it keeps them from the public eye in the bible.

The view of disability isn’t exactly positive in the Bible, however, it is not without more positive moments, even though the charitable element, while well intentioned, does nothing to actually improve the lives of disabled people. Those moments, while problematic, do speak of a Kingdom of Heaven that is more accessible and in line with the social model of disability, in which the person does not need to be cured or fixed, but requires society to accommodate differences.

An example of the dichotomy of problematic actions, and yet undertones of more modern notions on disability can be seen in the Parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14) in which the reader is given a glimpse into the position of the so called sinners who are disabled and their place in the Kingdom of God. In this story, a Pharisee is having a banquet for their friends, all of whom are affluent and hold positions of power. Unfortunately all those who were invited were unable to attend and so the Pharisee becomes angered, and in his anger asks his servants to go out and to find those who are poor or disabled and bring them to the house,

“Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” (Luke 14:21)

The Pharisee was inspired to do this because Jesus had previously met him and had been invited to celebrate the Sabbath in the Pharisees house. However, when invited Jesus said,

“When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives, or rich neighbours, if you do they also invite you back, and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed” (Luke 14:12-14).

The reason why this passage can be viewed as problematic is because it could be argued that in inviting those who are disabled and poor to the Banquet, the Pharisee was not being altruistic because the act of the gift came with a blessing for himself, according to Bourdieu (1990) what is given always has to be reciprocated, even if not immediately. In this way the Pharisee will be reciprocated via a blessing from God. The rational choice theory’s transactional model views self interest as an essential component of exchange, in this case the banquet for a blessing. In this theory, the concept of agency assumes that people are rational beings who choose to pursue things for their own self interest and gain, and so the offering of a banquet as a ‘pure gift’ takes into account the cost and reward of offering the gift of the banquet to the poor and disabled and serves solely as a symbolic symbol and function.

Through being altruistic the Pharisee expresses ‘institutionalised morality’ which then ensures the Pharisees ‘non-altruistic interest’ (Parkin 1976: 170). Put simply, by being seen to do an altruistic deed, the Pharisee will gain not only a blessing and approval from God, but viewed with a modern gaze also be seen in a positive and egalitarian way. The reason this is problematic is that the concept of the ‘pure gift’ and the act of charity to the poor and disabled is not about those people and treating them as equals, but it exists in a contradictory area where the Pharisee gives the banquet to them as an investment and a reward and so altruism and selfishness and self interest co-exist.

From a modern perspective this is an act of charity for selfish reasons and does nothing to further the cause of disabled people, however some read this passage and view it from another perspective. According to Rayan (1991:29), this parable informs the reader, who wishes to follow the example of Jesus, that Jesus in both his words and actions treated disabled people as equals and included them within the Church and the Kingdom of Heaven. In this way, this is an example of inclusivity and accessibility because the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t complete without them.


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. The Logic of Practice. Oxford: Polity Press.

Eiesland, N.L. (1994). The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol 4 (1972). Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House.

Grant, C. (1997). “Reinterpreting the Healing Narratives” in Nancy Eiesland and Don Saliers (eds.), Human Disability and the Service of God: Reassessing Religious Practice. Nashville: Abingdon.

Mauss, Marcel. 1990. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Routledge.

Otieno, P.A., 2009. Biblical and theological perspectives on disability: Implications on the rights of persons with disability in Kenya. Disability Studies Quarterly29(4).

Parkin, David. 1976. Exchanging Words. In Transaction and Meaning: Directions in the Anthropology of Exchange and Symbolic Behaviour, ed. Bruce Kapferer, 163–190. Philadelphia: Institute of the Study of Human Issues.

Rayan, N. (1991). Prepare the Bride. Bombay: Self-publication.


Advanced Search Strategies – Boolean Logic

Put simply Boolean logic is using a few common words or symbols that link the search terms together. Boolean logic depends on three main link words, known as Boolean Operators. These main link words are: AND, OR and NOT. However not all databases use these words and they might use symbols instead in which case, the AND becomes a plus sign, the OR becomes a comma and the NOT becomes a minus sign.

“Disability*” AND *visibility*”

AND will narrow down a search by searching for both terms, i.e. both “Disability*” AND *visibility*”. For example in the database Women in World History, this search results in two results.

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Image of a search in the archive Women in World History. The search shows two results

First Result

An essay written by suffragist Trinidad Fernandez Legarda, editor of The Woman’s Outlook and President of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs (NFWC). NFWC led the campaign for suffrage in the Philippines in 1921. The essay presents a summary of the Filipino suffragists’ argument for the vote.

What the use of “disability*” resulted in:

But while the child will become a man and a voter, the lunatic may be cured, and the criminal may be pardoned, no amount of wisdom, no age, no peculiar fitness, no public service rendered, however great, no effort, can remove from woman the extraordinary disability because of her sex. This is contrary to natural justice and to the most enlightened political philosophy. It is manifestly unjust to exclude one-half of our people from political influence, because woman has as many interests to work for as man, and she is quite capable of caring for her rights. In the words of Victor Hugo: “She who bears half the burden ought to have half the rights. Half of the human race is deprived of equality and it must be given to them.”

What the use of “visibility*” resulted in:

We have been accused of being lukewarm on the subject of woman suffrage just because we have made no visible agitation for the fulfillment of our aspirations. This attitude, it seems to me is the best proof for our capacity to exercise the suffrage.

Second Result

The second result was a newspaper exposé discusses the power (real and perceived) of Rosemarie Arenas, an alleged former mistress of Philippine President Fidel Ramos, during a democratic regime (1992-1998).

Unfortunately the search for *disability*” resulted more in words that began with DIS and had nothing to do with disability, for example

The gossip about the alleged relationship between Mr. Ramos and Rose Marie “Baby” Arenas now threatens to distract the nation from its own responsibilities toward nation-building. Never has gossip influenced public perception about how decisions are made in the highest levels of government. Never has gossip trivialised the affairs of State. 

This is because using an asterix is a bit of a wildcard method, which will widen a search but at the same time provides results that include words that begin with the same letter.

A similar issue occurred in this article, with *visibility*

According to government officials and presidential aides, Arenas, on two occasions, was about to go public with the relationship. During the presidential campaign, she visited Mr. Ramos’ headquarters on Pasay Road, Makati, and nearly raised hell because campaign staffers who did not know her denied her request for stickers.

Visibly mad, Arenas threatened to call the media, a member of the campaign staff recalls. She was later placated.

“If Baby (Arenas) gets angry, she can do a lot of trouble. The President needs trouble like a hole in the head,” says a retired general.

“Rest Cure*” NOT “disability*”

NOT will narrow a search because it excludes an unwanted term from the search, in this example that word is disability. Searching with this example in British History Online resulted in one result.

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Image of the archive British History Online. The search shows one result

While the search was successful in finding a reference to the ‘rest cure’ there was little information about the actual practicalities of the ‘rest cure’ as it was an article more focused on castles and manors.

The house has its place in modern history as the residence in 1907 of the German Emperor during his ‘rest cure.’

“Rest Cure*” OR “Silas Weir Mitchell*”

Searching the Vogue archive (the link is the Vogue site, not the archive). OR will broaden a search and will allow you to include synonyms or additional concepts. Using OR let to 8 results.

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Image of the Vogue archive, the search shows 8 results have been found and the first four are visible.

As Seen By Her was an article on the topic of the rest cure, and the rest cure featured prominently in the text.

rest cure
IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Image from Vogue magazine, at the top of the image are the words, ‘as seen by her’ and beneath this an image of a woman can be seen reading a book in bed. Beneath this is a paragraph explaining the rest cure as a health regime

Silas Weir Mitchell resulted in an article on the Doctor who established the rest cure, it covered a little bit of his background and his work in the American Civil War, but spoke more about his passion for literature, poetry and sports. In this search his name was featured in full as well as abbreviated forms throughout the article.

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Image from Vogue, showing part of an article on Dr Silas Weir Mitchell. The paragraph details his initial education in medicine and his work in the American Civil War.


‘Christchurch (Christchurch Twyneham): Introduction, castle and manors’, in A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 5, ed. William Page (London, 1912), pp. 83-101. British History Online [accessed 9 November 2018].

Danguilan-Vitug, Marites, and Glenda Gloria, “Past Relationship Impinges on Present Affairs of State,” and “Socialite Seeking Legitimacy.” The Philippine Daily Inquirer, (October 11, 1993), 1, 12, 13; (October 12, 1993), 1, 1

Legarda, Trinidad F. “Philippine Women and the Vote” Philippine Magazine, Vol 28, No. 4, (1931), 163-165, 196-200.

As Seen by Her. Vogue; New York Vol. 69, Iss. 10,  (May 15, 1927): 78, 79, 108, 110.

Silas Weir Mitchell.Vogue; New York Vol. 13, Iss. 19,  (Nov 17, 1898): 319.


Postmodernism and Linguistic Turn

Postmodernism originates in European and especially French literary theory, some of the key theorists behind the body of theory that forms postmodernism are Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jaques Lacan. Postmodernism represents what some call, ‘linguistic turn’.

“Linguistic turn” put simply is a term that arose from the interplay of philosophy and language in the early 20th century, it was a method for phenomenologists to undermine subject/object dualism as well as challenge the assumptions about the psychological foundation of experience. It has challenged the traditional view of historical objectivity, expanding our understanding of the past, so that it isn’t simply a read as ‘fact’ but that the past doesn’t exist outside of the textual representations of it, and that those representations can’t be separated from the ideology of the historian.

According to Deetz (2003) This potential approach/perspective grew out of the birth of social constructionism and ‘perspectivalism’, put simply, it grew out of the the recognition of the constitutive conditions of experience as well as removing the human subject under investigation from being the sole origin of the perspective. Through this approach the experiences and objects of the world do not have a constant truth, but become the outcomes of other elements that may have influence or factored into those accounts or objects.

Deconstructionism is central to postmodernist analysis of historical literature and art. It explores how the key texts and discourses around which a society are organised operate. Most of the texts and discourses are usually constructed to support the social elite, reinforce hegemony and dominant ideologies, examples of the texts can be political and constitutional, for example, US Constitution and Government Documents such as Hansard. However, popular literature, entertainment and other forms of social commentary can also be explored from a deconstructionist perspective. It’s important to also consider non-linguistic sources, some discourses fall into this area, and can also be deconstructed to provide a fuller picture of the society under investigation. According to Brundage (2013 pg 16),

“Deconstructionists endeavour to strip away the positive or idealistic facades of dominant discourses in order to expose them for what they believe them to be: tools for legitimising political, social, economic and cultural oppression.”

This approach is considered postmodernist it challenges the dominant modern belief that humanity, guided by science and reason (especially since the Enlightenment in the mid to late 19th century) has become more humane and tolerant, especially of those who challenge societal norm’s such as heteronormativity, able bodied-ness etc.

Example of Postmodernism – Michel Foucault – Discipline and Punish

This work by Foucault is viewed by some as a controversial work of postmodernist analysis of the evolution of the prison system in the 18th and 19th century. His work challenged the dominant narrative that previous historians believed about the current prison system, in which they felt that the current institutions were more humane than they had been in the past. For those historians, the end of barbaric executions, attempts at rehabilitation and new standards of decency showed societies movement to being more human and tolerant. Foucault disagreed with this view and viewed the current prison systems move to a new rehabilitation focused regime to be more intrusive, destructive and totalitarian to the prisoners. Interestingly, Foucault (2012) felt that prison was a microcosm that was reflective of society, in which powerful approaches and devices were used to suppress marginalised groups and behaviours that were deemed deviant in comparison to the normative standard. Foucault felt that this was a continuous attempt to create a singular human type that was socially acceptable, one who was docile and materialistic.

Postmodernism and Controversy

While the postmodern approach has brought new depth and insight to cultural history, gender study, queer theory and disability studies, however it remains controversial because it focuses on marginalised groups and oppression. Critics argue that postmodernist approaches to history are influenced by current polemic and political movements, and so does not adhere to scholarly rigour. These concerns also extend to the malleability of language and the evolution of the meaning and significance of words. For some critics approaching historiography through this lens reduces it to a subsystem of linguistic signs that place the past within a ‘prisonhouse of language‘. According to Baker (2013) structuralist theories of language could cause the historian to be trapped in viewing, “the entire world as a domain of meaning but at the cost of our historical souls”

However according to Toews (1987 pg 881-882) many now concede that,

“language can no longer be construed as simply a medium, relatively or potentially transparent, for the representation or expression  of a reality outside of itself and are willing to entertain seriously some form of semiological theory in which language is conceived of as a self-contained system of “signs” whose meanings are determined by their relations to each other, rather than by their relation to some “transcendental” or extralinguistic object or subject.”

The concerns also consider the belief that it is impossible to be objective when seeking to understand human affairs. In anthropology, reflection and consideration of ones own ethnographic influences are vital to gaining and clearer and truer image of the society or ritual under consideration. While it is difficult to maintain objectivity because by the mere fact a person is alive within a society,  and therefore they will have certain societal views, expectations and norms which might colour their view of historical events, this does not mean that objectivity is impossible. However, as the work on Orientalism by Said showed, the objectivity of scholars may not be as objective as first thought and can be challenged by those outside the bubble of the dominant narrative, and so the accusation that postmodernism is a form of philosophical nihilism is an unfair accusation.

A new approach to Postmodernism via Chartier and LaCapra

Chartier (1982) and LaCapra (1983, 1987) proposed an interesting “revisionist” approach to sociocultural historiography. They questioned the binary supposedly evident in deconstuctionism of a binary opposition of the elite and popular culture. According to Chaertier and LaCapra, this binary approach oversimplified the heterogeneous elements of cultural meaning present in a historical culture and ignored the links and overlaps between elite and popular culture.

The category of “elite” culture hides significant distinctions between “high” and “official” culture. “High” culture being reflected in the artefacts of intellectuals such as theologians and artists, with “Official” culture representative of the hegemonic culture of social and political elites and supported by propaganda by state authorities. Therefore, this more complex view of “Elite” Culture is also reflected in “Popular” culture, which according to Chartier and LaCapra could be viewed from 4 different perspectives. “Popular” culture can be considered in four domains, firstly as “general/common” culture of the marginalised/socially dominated group such as low wage labourers and peasants. “Everyday” culture which includes kinship relations, work, play and gender relations in which every group shares, “political/public” culture via which people debate and discuss goals and conflicting views as part of an organised community/society and finally “mass” culture which involves the consumption and production of commodified meanings. While each cultural level can be reconstructed as a world of meanings, and despite their heterogeneous nature, they are not autonomous,  but exist

“as compound worlds that bring together, in a virtually inextricable mixture, elements of very diverse origins.” (Chartier 1982 pg 34)

In effect, Chartier and LaCapra build on the work of Geertz and thick and thin description. In the essay Thick Description: Toward and Interpretive Theory of Culture in The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays  (1973) Geertz approached the issue of the term ‘culture’ which had been used by anthropologists to mean different things thereby creating ambiguity, and proclaimed that the main feature of culture was significance and meaning. Geertz quoted Weber by arguing that humans were,

‘an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun’ (Geertz 1973, p.5).

Geertz suggested that the most effective method for studying culture was ‘thick description’ as described by Gilbert Ryle, for with this approach not only what happens was described by what was intended was also described.

Ryle used an example of two boys, one who had a twitch in his eye and one who winked at his friend. If a physical or ‘thin’ description was given of both boys the movements of each would be described as identical, however if the significance or meaning of the physical motion was considered, the two seemingly similar actions were vastly different. ‘Thick’ description would include the meaning of the motion and show the difference between the twitch and the wink.

However, meaning doesn’t necessarily mean an idea attributed to a thing in an individual’s mind, because for a person to wink and another to understand the intention of that action, there must be a public understanding of the meaning and significance of a wink. When taken in the terms of culture, it is the shared context of meaning. By using thick description, an anthropologist can understand and view things that they might have otherwise misinterpreted. Culture isn’t just about meaning, but also includes the behaviour and actions of people because sometimes the way a person acts might seem to be against the system of meaning their culture has adhered to, and without thick description ethnographic work is superficial. In doing so an anthropologist can easily have an inconsistent description of a culture because a culture can have multiple and conflicting courses of action taken by an individual, and so cultural analysis is interpretation by

‘guessing at meanings, assessing the guesses, and drawing explanatory conclusions’ (Geertz 1973, p.20).

Therefore, Chartier and LaCapra were taking the postmodernist deconstructionist view of a social elite reinforcing their hegemonic dominance over an oppressed group/marginalised group and ‘thickening’ it so that the Elite perspective of culture versus that of the marginalised group is no longer binary and thin, but thick and nuanced. Postmodernism according to its critics can be trapped on a focus on the potential meaning and significance of a word, or the existence and meaning of a text, however without understanding the behaviour and actions of the people within the culture the historical picture will be incomplete and superficial.


Keith Michael Baker, “On the Problem of the Ideological Origins of the French Revolution,” in LaCapra and Kaplan, Modern European Intellectual History, 200.

Brundage, A., 2013. Going to the sources: A guide to historical research and writing. John Wiley & Sons.

Chattier, Roger. “Intellectual History or Sociocultural History.” Dominick LaCapra, Steven L. Kaplan. Modern European Intellectual History, Reappraisals and New Perspectives(1982): 13-46.

Deetz, S., 2003. Reclaiming the legacy of the linguistic turn. Organization10(3), pp.421-429.

Foucault, M., 2012. Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Vintage.

Geertz, C., 1973. The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays (Vol. 5019). Basic books.

LaCapra, D., 1983. Rethinking intellectual history: texts, contexts, language. Cornell University Press.

LaCapra, D., 1987. History and criticism. Cornell University Press. 74-78.

Toews, J.E., 1987. Intellectual history after the linguistic turn: The autonomy of meaning and the irreducibility of experience.



Exploring Social, Medical Models and Embodiment

Biomedical Model

Historically, biomedical sciences and social sciences worked in a manner that separated the academic focus on the physical body from the study of social processes. While there were clashes between the disciplines in regards to issues such as ‘nature vs nurture’, the biological determination was usually deemed most important, and so the biomedical sciences laid the foundation for disability policy, especially in regards to the Biomedical model of disability. The biomedical model of disability reflects modern essentialism which views certain phenomena as natural and biologically determined.

Therefore, the biomedical model of disability implies that a disabled person can be ‘fixed’ or ‘cured’. While some people are disabled by chronic illnesses, others are disabled not due to an illness, but also have chronic health conditions due to their disability. However linking disability to illness is problematic, because it leads to the medicalisation of disability, much like the biomedical model does, and thus leads to the view that disability is a personal misfortune in which a person suffers from a physical or mental health issue that can be fixed, cured, treated or prevented (Oliver 1990). The view of illness is that it causes someone to be incapacitated and unable to function at a level deemed socially normal or economically valuable, through associating illness to disability it perpetuates the myth that disabled people are incapacitated and devalues them socially (Amundson, 1992, pgs 113–14).

The devaluation of disabled people is evident across history and across cultures, with disabled people viewed as someone to be pitied, tragic or disposable, they are also more likely to face abuse and violence, though some societies credit disabled people has having special powers to heal, but this isn’t a dominant narrative.

The move to distance illness from disability is reflected by Clare (1999),

To frame disability in terms of a cure is to accept the medical model of disability, to think of disabled people as sick, diseased, ill people…. My CP simply is not a medical condition. I need no specific medical care, medication, or treatment for my CP; the adaptive equipment I use can be found in a computer catalog, not a hospital. Of course, disability comes in many varieties. Some disabled people, depending on their disabilities, may indeed have pressing medical needs for a specific period of time or on an ongoing basis. But having particular medical needs differs from labeling a person with multiple sclerosis as sick, or thinking of quadriplegia as a disease. The disability rights movement, like other social change movements, names systems of oppression as the problem, not individual bodies. In short it is ableism that needs the cure, not our bodies. (Clare, 1999 pgs 105–6)

Social Model

However, in contrast to this biomedical approach, a separate approach was forming in the social sciences that challenged the biomedical model through a social-constructionist lens. The term social constructionism can be used quite broadly in the social sciences, and on a simple level is used to refer to social influences on an individuals experiences. More specifically, it is a term used for a particular paradigm, that assumes that, “reality is socially constructed” (Berger & Luckmann, 1966, pgs. 1).

The social constructionist approach led to the rise of the Social model of disability, which encouraged a rethinking and challenging of how society viewed the disabled body. It moved the discussion away from onotological or causation approaches to query the social reality that leaves a person disabled within society.

Constructionists  consider knowledge and truth to be created by the mind and not discovered (Schwandt 2003). This doesn’t mean that realism isn’t consistent with constructionism because the belief in concepts being constructed doesn’t mean that they don’t relate to something tangible and real. Reality is linked to the subjective experience of every day life and incorporates how the world is understood by those in it rather than focusing solely on the objective reality of the natural world.

Steedman (2000) argues that most of what is known and what attempts at knowing that are done are attempts at making sense of what it means to be human compared to scientific knowledge which focuses on more objective facts. This approach helped to show the capacity of cultural discourses and social structures to define bodies and shape the lived bodily experience of disabled people, especially via hierarchies of bodies with some being preferred and seen as ‘normal’ and others as strange and ‘other’

The Social model suggested that whatever a persons ‘differences’ were from a socially defined ‘norm’, that persons ability to operate in society was determined by how that society recognised their needs and provided accessible and enabling environments, for example, if a person was in a wheelchair, did buildings in that society have ramps so they could be accessed by all? if not, the lack of a ramp was disabling to the person, and so the person despite their apparent differences from the social ‘norm’ were disabled by the society and not because of physiological issues.

It was moment filled with numerous challenges to the dominant view of marginalised groups and the disabled body, from debates on the biomedical models of causation, power and privilege over marginalised group and the ahistorical classifications of disabled bodies and bodies more generally.Attempts at approaching the embodiment of disability in disability studies has been contentious, and led to the countering of the medical model with the social model by activists.

The social model is according to Thomas (1999) not as simple as it might appear, and has two approaches and thus doesn’t provide a simple unifying model of disability.

Thomas (1999 pg 40) suggests that the first approach deals with the relationships of disabled people with able bodied people which manifests as oppressive practices and exclusion. The second approach views disability as the property of the disabled person, due to the restrictions they face due to social policies and practice. Both of these suggested approaches within the social model of disability deny that the body or embodiment is relevant to disability. This approach contrasts with the Biomedical approach that focuses on a problem or impairment in the body that needs to be remedied.

The Social model places the disabled person in a socio-material world in which the disabled person is acted upon or in which they can act against and resist, it involves the creation of a sense of self and that of ‘other’  within which disabled people fight for rights and equality, but it also exists  as a sense of self and other for able bodied people and their rejection of those who do not meet societal ‘norms’. In both the body is a given, however it has no part in the subjectivity of the person as it merely acts as a flesh and blood vessel for the person disabled or able bodied to express themselves.


Postmodernism challenges the Social model, viewing it as exclusionary due to the ‘otherness’ and proposes an embodied subjectivity. Embodied subjectivity is reproduced and created via social interactions with other social-bodies. The body is no longer a stable entity, but something that is always growing and changing and materialises through discourse. Relationships with others are enacted not only through social interactions but bodily actions and interactions with each other leading to mutual constitutive effects on each other. Through this lens, disability is not the sole property of any person, but that it is much more than a mere imbalance of powers between the disabled and the able bodied. While modernist perspectives look towards the fight for rights, this post-conventional approach looks at the sense of self and how one orientates themselves within society is linked to the bodies of those around us.


Biomedical science has reached a point where it acknowledges social processes that produce bodily outcomes such as disease and injuries. Therefore biology and society are not separate entities nor are they able to add together neatly. This creates, as Roberts suggests, ‘co-construction’ of the biological and the social.

Social history has replaced biological evolution to become the main process that leads change in society, this doesnt return the conversation to ‘nature vs nurture’ because social history can be independent of physical bodies. Connell (2011 pgs 1370-1371) calls this social embodiment and it refers to,

“the collective, reflexive process that embroils bodies in social dynamics, and social dynamics in bodies.”

Connell believes that social embodiment has two sides, for example, disability is about how bodies participate in social dynamics, whereas impairment is about how social dynamics affect bodies. The key to understanding social embodiment is to understand the agency of bodies as material objects and their productive power in social relationships. Many issues that affect the body, such as ageing or fertility are considered important social processes, but they aren’t external to society. Berghs (2008) showed how variations in disability can lead to differing social practises, for example, in Sierra Leone those who had an amputated body reflected the national history of violence, their bodies had participated in the social dynamics of violence, and so the impairment of the amputation led to social aid schemes. In comparison, those who had an intellectual disability remained hidden from the public view and understanding. Unlike the amputation which could be understood via the social dynamics of violence, the intellectual disability could not be understood due to lack of visibility about how it participated in social dynamics, and therefore those affected where impaired by the social dynamics that caused it to be invisible.

Embodiment and Episodic Disabilities

The issue of disability and embodiment, and how it is approached and viewed via models such as the social model, is further complicated by disabled people who live with ‘episodic disabilities’ because those who have an episodic disability do not fit neatly into social categories for disability. In terms of the Social Model, if a person with an episodic disability had their ability to operate in society determined by how the society recognised their needs, it would be episodic, leaving them in a liminal phase between able bodied and disabled because they can’t fit neatly into one category as a sole identity. They are disabled, but they are also able bodied at times, this episodic reality can be oppressive as those with episodic disabilities struggle more to access benefits and assistance as required.The Biomedical model would view them as not well  but not entirely sick either because they are not completely or always incapacitated by their disability. This presents the problem of those who are disabled being viewed as not disabled enough within the existing parameters of the biomedical model of disability for example, as Young (2000) explains about accessibility and accommodation in the workplace,

“… Disability is a matter of degree, and it is arbitrary where the line is drawn between not disabled enough to warrant accommodation, and disabled enough. A politics of resentment motivates some people to draw that line as far down the extreme end of the continuum as possible so that almost everyone will be legally expected to conform to the normal workplace demands.”(Young 2000, 171)

Overall, both the biomedical and social model are open to criticisms, and Thomas’s (1999) approach that dissects the social model into two distinct forms merits further examinations. However, the challenge of invisible, fluctuating disabilities within a model of disability remains.


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