University of Gothenburg
Art in underground corridor at hospital

Conference: The Material and Immaterial Heritage of Psychiatry - June 2019

AN INTERDISCIPLINARY CONFERENCE 11-12 June 2019 University of Gothenburg Keynote speakers Hans-Peter Söder (University of Munich, Germany) China Mills (University of Sheffield, UK)

Call for papers

Psychiatry has been imbued with controversies since its birth as a discipline. Over the past decades, biomedical perspectives have become domineering, framing psychiatry as a science disconnected from contextual and cultural values and practices. The mainstream narrative represents the idea of constant progress, with previous psychiatric care being depicted as inhumane and unscientific, while current practices are considered to be humane, effective, and scientific. Emphasizing oppressive historical practices serves to justify current practices and might contribute to the occlusion of ongoing injustice. Throughout history, there have certainly been oppressive and inhumane interventions; there have, however, also been empathic and holistic perspectives and approaches, underlining the importance of wellbeing, meaning making and belonging, but these tend to be excluded from the dominant narrative.

In general, there is a tendency to disregard the heritage of psychiatry and mental health care both in material and immaterial terms. Its buildings are frequently deconstructed or rebuilt as business parks, SPA facilities or residential areas, and the traces of their past are thus obliterated. Important questions arising are: Whose narratives become neglected or silenced in this process? Whose narratives are perceived as important to preserve? Who is given the authority to speak ‘truth’ about the history and heritage of psychiatry and mental health care? The neglect of considering and preserving the narratives of, for instance, the patients and those challenging the dominant discourse at any given point in time, might be expressive of a sense of guilt for the oppressive practices that have taken and are still taking place. It might also be connected to ideas of progress, as though we live in an era of scientific breakthroughs with no need to either look back or look sideways, or to efforts to deflect attention from the overwhelming suffering experienced by clients.

Acknowledgment of psychiatry’s immaterial and material heritage might broaden the perspectives on its history as well as on current and future practices. We need to consider which parts of psychiatry’s heritage should be acknowledged and preserved. What current practices are remnants of oppressive historical practices and perspectives? We also need to consider how questions of heritage might provide possibilities to formulate criticism and provide alternatives, for example through activism, user movements, visual art, handicraft, or creative writing, and also how creative expressions contribute to wellbeing and recovery and to scholarly and clinical insight. What can we learn from prior practices and activities and how are they integrated (explicitly or implicitly) in today’s psychiatry? Moreover, historical and current alternatives to mainstream psychiatry might be specifically important for minority ethnic groups and migrants, who alongside women, LGBTQ people and people with socioeconomic difficulties often have been oppressed through established diagnostic procedures and treatment interventions. And they still are.

We welcome papers from scholars in critical psychiatry/psychology/social work/occupational therapy, cultural studies, critical heritage studies, gender studies, philosophy, literature, architecture, history, religion, visual arts, history of ideas, psychoanalysis and other disciplines. Papers could, for example, concern psychiatry’s benevolent heritage, such as the use of expressive arts and crafts, the role of women and minority populations, or how the material heritage of psychiatry, including its buildings, could inform prior and current understanding of mental distress. Papers are however not limited to these topics.

The conference is financed by the Center for Critical Heritage Studies (University of Gothenburg) and organised by Elisabeth Punzi (Gothenburg, Department of Psychology and Centre for Critical Heritage Studies), Christoph Singer (Paderborn, Department of English), Nika Söderlund (Gothenburg, Department of Social work), Cornelia Wächter, (Bochum, Department of English), and Frida Wikström (Gothenburg, Department of Historical Studies).

Please send 300-400-word abstracts for 20-minute papers to Elisabeth Punzi (, Nika Söderlund ( and Frida Wikström ( by 30 November 2018.

There will be no conference fee.

The Conference is arranged by

Centre for Critical Heritage Studies, UGOT, Sweden

Ruhr Universität Bochum, Germany

Universität Paderborn, Germany


Program and dates

The conference The Material and Immaterial Heritage of Psychiatry. An Interdisciplinary Conference takes place at the Department of Historical Studies, Eklandagatan 86,  University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden, 11-12 June 2019.

Deadline for submission of abstracts: 30 November 2018.
Notification about paper acceptance will be sent in February 2019.
A full conference program will be published in April 2019.

Location: Eklandagatan 86, Gothenburg

Registration: Tuesday 11 June, 8.00–9.00.

Coffee and food: Coffee, cookies and fruit will be served in the morning and in the afternoon.

Lunch: Lunch will be served at the conference. The cost for lunch is approximately €12. We will provide more information via email.

Conference dinner: The conference dinner will take place on the evening 11 June at Dubbel dubbel Polhemsplatsen. The cost for the dinner will be 325 SEK and the cost is not covered by the conference. We will provide more information via email.

On the evening of Wednesday, the 12th there is an art exhibition with art made by users of psychiatry. It is co-arranged with Annika Engström who is an artist and creative leader at Gyllenkroken (an activity center for users of psychiatry), Anna Sjölander, art educator at Västarvet, and artists and participants at Gyllenkroken. The venue for the exhibition will be at Galleri Majnabbe at Taubegatan 9A. A buffet and refreshments will be served.

Keynote speakers

China Mills is a Senior Lecturer in Public Health and Programme Director of the masters in Public Health (MPH) at City, University of London. China’s research traces different facets of the global mental health assemblage. She explores the ways diagnoses travel and circulate around the world, and what happens when issues such as distress, suicide, or terrorism get framed as global public health challenges. China also carries out critical research into suicides linked to welfare reform, economic reform, immigration detention, and corporate practices, and is a member of the Critical Suicide Studies Network. China is the Principal Investigator on a British Academy grant looking at the ‘social life’ (production, circulation, use and resistance) of global mental health technologies designed to be used all over the world. She was also Principal Investigator on a previous British Academy grant researching the use of behaviour change technologies in India, South Africa and Australia. In 2014, China published the book ‘Decolonizing Global Mental Health: the Psychiatrization of the Majority World’ (Routledge), which draws on research with NGOs and user-survivor organisations in India, and analyses global mental health policies as forms of colonial discourse. Since her book, she has published widely in leading journals, including: Critical Public Health; Globalization and Health; Critical Sociology Policy; and Sociology of Health and Illness. China is a member of Editorial Collective for Critical Social Policy, and a member of the editorial group for Asylum - a radical mental health magazine.

The living heritage of Global Mental Health (told through a mental health diagnostic algorithm)

Algorithmic tools for mental health diagnosis are becoming an increasingly common state of the art in psychiatry and in Global Mental Health, used to support clinical decision-making in diagnosis and management through pre-determined flowcharts of questions. Algorithmic tools and guidelines are seen as important tools in extending the reach of mental health services in low and middle-income countries and enabling task-sharing – the redistribution of clinical tasks to those deemed to be ‘non-specialists’ in mental health. While some psychiatrists are at the forefront of developing these tools, there is also a strong psychiatric voice of opposition, keen to strengthen boundaries around psychiatric expertise.

This talk will explore the historical and contemporary ‘conditions of possibility’ in the development of mental health diagnostic algorithms and guidelines. While these tools are in many ways new, they are shaped and made possible by the ‘living history’ (Stoler, 2002) and heritage of a colonial arithmetic (Appardurai, 1993) of insanity, and a continual historical desire to calculate madness in order to compare its prevalence internationally. Weaving in and out of this living and partial history, this talk focuses on the ‘social life’ of the World Health Organization’s mhGAP-Intervention Guide (mhGAP-IG) - an evidence-based tool and guideline to help detect, diagnose and manage the most common mental disorders, designed for use by non-specialists globally but particularly in low- and middle-income countries. In reference to the mhGAP-IG’s ‘social life’, I will discuss how it was created and produced; how it circulates; and the ways it is taken up, used, appropriated, and/or resisted. Drawing on interviews with the actors who coalesce around these guidelines (from those who crafted its design to those who use it in the field), the talk will trace how multiple, always partial, histories of mhGAP and Global Mental Health are narrated, and the symbolic and political force of guidelines and algorithms. At the heart of the talk are questions about how algorithmic diagnostic tools and guidelines inscribe and materialise (Haraway, 1997) certain understandings of mental distress over others, and the implications this has for the experience and governance of mental health.

Hans-Peter Söder is the Director of the JYM course of study program at the University of Munich. An Adjunct Professor at the Department of Modern and Classical Languages at Wayne State University (Detroit, USA), he is member of the Bavarian American Academy and a member of the executive board of The International Society for the Study of European Ideas (ISSEI). An advisory editor of The European Legacy, he serves on numerous boards. Publishing widely on philosophical and literary issues, he is the editor of the cultural journal Wendepunk.t. His most recent book was Metalogicon (Munich, 2016). His book Licht.Ontografische Untersuchungen is forthcoming in 2019.

“Material Culture and Immaterial Man: What does the Soul have to do with it?”

One of the consequences of the advent of material culture is that the body itself is seen as an assemblage of material. Through the merging of informatics and virtual reality “the body” is becoming an open book whose last secrets are about to be revealed. As simulation replaces the logos of the psyche, the human body loses its last sanctuaries. Although the imagery of the body as a superior machine is age-old and goes back to antiquity, the current inflationary usage of the concept of “the body” goes counter to Aristotle`s notion of ”the soul” as the principle of life. Beginning with Christian Weiss and his aim to found a science of the soul in 1811 (Über das Wesen und Wirken der menschlichen Seele), this paper will offer a critique of post- and transhumanism as it argues for the ongoing need for transcultural dialog and human ambiguity.