Humanities and Arts-informed Research Methods in the Social Sciences

Students chatting outside university building

The University of Edinburgh’s innovative MSc by Research in Health Humanities and Arts will welcome its third intake of students in September 2021. Fancy joining them?

This cutting-edge programme explores health and wellbeing through the lens of arts and humanities practice and knowledge. Visit the University of Edinburgh website to find out more. 

The next deadlines are the 26th of March and 11th of June 2021 for a September 2021 start. If you are interested in applying or want to hear more then please get in touch with Programme Director, Dr Marisa de Andrade (marisa.deandrade@ed.ac.uk).

Alternatively, you can join Marisa’s Research Training Centre (RTC) Micro-Methods workshop on the 30th March 2021 from 2pm – 4pm (GMT). Visit the RTC workshops page to book your place.

Below are some reflections from Leah Soweid, an alumni from the programme’s inaugural year. Leah will join the University of Edinburgh as a Research Assistant in Health Humanities and Arts on Marisa’s new International Development partnership with universities and an established social movement in Brazil – Brazil’s Emancipation Network meets Health Humanities and Arts: Creative Curricula for At-Risk Communities to Address Inequalities.

“I began my MSc by Research in Health Humanities and Arts at the University of Edinburgh in the fall of 2019.  After my previous studies, which had honed in on very specific types of health, I was interested in pursuing a degree that looked at health and wellbeing from a wider scope. I had come from a background of academia that was firmly rooted in traditional research, one that more often than not viewed science and medicine as separate from arts and humanities, and so it was exciting to see a course title that legitimised what I had always believed—that those fields were interrelated, and there was exciting potential when brought together.

I went into the programme not fully knowing what health humanities meant.  For many, health is framed predominantly through a medical lens, exclusively focusing on what happens within a medical context. Though this undoubtedly is an important part of health experience, health does not, in fact, begin and end in a doctor’s office. Let’s say you’re a woman requesting birth control pills—a healthcare experience may be seen strictly as you going to the GP’s and picking up the prescription. But going home and taking those pills, experiencing the many internal and external societal expectations, beliefs and stereotypes surrounding contraception, and dealing with the positive and negative effects that come with them–i.e., the social determinants of health– occurs outside a medical setting, and it is this wider, holistic approach to health and wellbeing that defines the health humanities. It seeks to understand how health and bodies are conceptualized and constructed in society, and does so using humanities (such as literature, philosophy, languages) and art (such as visual and performing arts, music, writing) disciplines to investigate health and healthcare. As Health Humanities researcher and scholar Paul Crawford puts it: “health is too important to be left to the doctors”.

As health humanities is an emerging field of study, in many ways still in its infancy, our core module, Humanities and Arts-Informed Research Methods in the Social Sciences, was key in dispelling any uncertainties about what it encompassed. It was a thorough introduction that not only clarified what health humanities was, but how it could be applied in research. Each session put into focus a different art/humanities discipline, and our Programme Director, Dr Marisa de Andrade, always brought in a guest lecturer who was an expert in that particular field. From each class, we were able to delve into such questions as: How can singing be used to investigate cystic fibrosis? What can drawings from former cardiac arrest patients tell me about their recovery process? What did this documentary about nursing homes teach me about the realities of ageing, dignity, and life? How many books about nursing were written by nurses, not doctors—and why does that matter? In class, key words that I started off being unfamiliar with—ontology, embodiment, epistemology—became commonplace, and a vital part of my understanding of the field. The module was nurturing; it sought to teach us the skills we needed to learn how to swim, rather than throwing us into the deep end without a lifeboat.

Yet another blessing of the degree were my course-mates. The Health Humanities and Arts programme celebrates the multidisciplinary, and this was perfectly exemplified in its first cohort: there were seven of us in total, all from different countries and academic backgrounds, brought together by the similar interest in a wider understanding of health(care) and a shared passion for arts and humanities. From a neuroscientist with a love of theatre, to a literature graduate who was amazing at dancing, to a doctor who always came to class with her knitting needles at the ready; our group was a testament to what the course represented: the importance, and potential, in interdisciplinary collaboration and research. It was amazing to see just how different our perceptions of health were based on our own individual experiences; I learned so much from them, and cohorts to come will similarly have much to learn from each other.

Unfortunately, as COVID hit during the second term of the course, the in-person interactions were put to a sudden halt. However, the guidance and encouragement we received from our programme heads, who were also our thesis supervisors, never wavered, even online, and I officially graduated with distinction in November 2020 as part of the first cohort in the Health Humanities and Arts MScR. The course has changed the way I view research, and has given me a newfound appreciation for cross-disciplinary partnerships. Since getting my degree, I’ve been navigating these strange times in the world with an enhanced perception of health and wellbeing, and recently I was given the opportunity to continue engaging with health humanities as a Research Assistant at the University of Edinburgh.”

Photo by Paul Dodds