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International Congress „Illness Narratives in Practice“, Freiburg, 26.-27. Juni 2015

The congress Illness Narratives in Practice has been organized by the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Psychotherapy at the University of Freiburg in cooperation with DIPExGermany project group. It brought together international researchers working on different fields in the study of illness narratives as well as health care professionals from a variety of areas dealing with stories of personal illness experience in clinical contexts.

The keynote talks given on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning outlined the scope of recent discussions on illness narratives in a wide range of academic disciplines. Speakers from biomedicine, clinical psychology, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, ethics, and sociology presented their respective approaches to the field. As Congress President Prof. Dr. Gabriele Lucius-Hoene and sociologist Cornelia Helfferich summarized in their closing remarks, the vast majority of research follows a rather interpretative paradigm, taking into account the social construction of the self and the subjective experience of suffering in illness narratives. Therefore, predominantly qualitative methods are applied and a growing sensitivity for the limitations of standardized designs has evolved.

In eight parallel sessions until Saturday evening workshops were held and papers were presented on research perspectives, methodological foundations and methodical challenges in the research on illness narratives. My presentation titled “Illness Narratives in Political Communication: instrumental, institutional, and social Functions of political Actors’ Pathographies (Krankheitserzählungen in der politischen Kommunikation. Instrumentelle, institutionelle und soziale Funktionen von Pathographien politischer Akteure)“ draw attention to a rather understudied research topic: mediated stories of politicians‘ illness experiences. In Germany, more than 180 media outlets thematized the health conditions of over 30 individual political actors between 2009 and 2012. Taking up assumptions from the sociology of knowledge, these publicized illness stories can be grasped as discourses that negotiate the cleavage between "normality" and "deviation". Historically and culturally bound, illness narratives reflect and transform collective knowledge of the body, of different kinds of diseases, and about the social identity of the sick. Therefore, illness discourses are inextricably intertwined with power. Reporting the results of a comparative case study on the pathographies of Bavaria’s former state minister of education, Monika Hohlmeier, and Minister-President of Rheinland-Pfalz, Malu Dreyer, typical practices of the body to deal with illness in a highly institutionalized setting like the political arena were identified in my presentation. Furthermore, it could be shown how the illness experience is strategically integrated into political actors’ image building. Finally, the findings indicate that public testimony may shift media stereotypes in the presentation of certain illnesses and increase social acceptance for the sick.
The reactions to my presentation have been overwhelmingly positive. I received many inspiring comments that I will be happy to pick up in my further research.

Some of the findings I presented in Freiburg have been included in a volume edited by Philipp Hubmann titled “Political Aporias: Actors and Practices of Dilemma (Politische Aporien. Akteure und Praktiken des Dilemmas)” that will be published by Turia + Kant in early 2016. Until then, related studies I conducted on political actors’ pathographies and other fields of political communication research are available in print and as e-books. For the full list of publications, please visit my website