Background/field: Seán began his academic life in German studies, investigating the functions of prefaces in Romantic German literature and philosophy, and he’s now writing a cultural history of the hairdresser.
Current research: The article we’re discussing here, a collaboration with Kari Nyheim Solbrække, uses wigs as a focal point for analysing mainstream cultural representations of cancer, and specifically for investigating the tensions between conformity and subversion at play in these memoirs, films, and TV shows.
Research questions: How do wigs tell more general stories about cancer? Can they illuminate facets and potential effects that would otherwise go unnoticed?
Research method: Seán says ‘it was really classical close reading, but with a large corpus trying to map out more generalizable stories – or memes, as I think you rightly call them. And it was enriched by Kari’s knowledge and reading from medical sociology. Its strength and its weakness is that it isn’t easily situated within a method – it is much more essayistic.’
Findings: Texts that are otherwise conformist are often more playful with respect to cancer, specifically where the wig is used as a prop or narrative device that counteracts stereotypes of the “good patient” on their way to post-traumatic growth.
Making the case: Pre COVID-19, cancer was the most globally salient illness, and as such it’s not only an important object of investigation in its own right, but also a valuable case study for how cultural tropes about illness and adversity more generally are constructed and received.
- This coauthored paper led to a larger project ‘Rethinking cancer survivorship’, investigating the human and social aspects of cancer and cancer survivorship via literature review, in-depth interviews, textual analysis, and intervention design.
- As we discuss, an experimental continuation of this work focused on individuals’ reception of cancer narratives could investigate the role of the micro-moments of heightened intimacy and self-performance that often centre on hair loss and wigs
Other topics we touch on:
- The researcher’s dilemma: to make moral or value judgements or to avoid them?
- The importance of personality, genre preference, and other individual factors in shaping viewers’/readers’ responses
- Disciplinary transitions and the health humanities
- Anxieties about dilettantism and impostorhood
- Personal experience as a research credential
- The dynamics of (interdisciplinary) collaboration
Other connections that struck me as we talked, or as I edited:
- A possible link to ‘cognitive realism’ (the convergence between textual evocations of cognition and cognitive realities) occurred to me, sparked by Seán’s observation that neither conformity nor subversion is ever total. Is the most effective subversion (with efficacy on dimensions to be specified!) the kind that gives people enough of what they’re familiar with to make the unfamiliar palatable, or the kind that subverts everything we thought we knew? This relates also to minimally counterintuitive concepts, first investigated as part of a framework for making sense of the success of religion.
- Both this and Seán’s own interest in the wider rise and fall of competing forms of cultural representation also makes on obvious link to memetics, which I think is the most powerful and most underrated explanatory model for cultural evolution.
Find out more:
- Seán’s Sheffield webpage is https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/slc/people/academic/sean-williams
- Kari’s Oslo webpage is https://www.med.uio.no/helsam/english/people/aca/karinso/
- Seán and Kari’s 2018 Body & Society paper ‘”Cancer Coiffures”: Embodied Storylines of Cancer Patienthood and Survivorship in the Consumerist Cultural Imaginary’ is open-access here
- And a clip from Seán’s BBC documentary ‘Cancer Coiffures’ is here