Cool Thesis of the Week: Cancer as a Social Construct
Most people with illnesses turn to science for the cure. Some turn to religion. Hunter Kirkland ’12 turns to anthropology.
“Cancer is merely a product of the collective consciousness of Western society.”
Hunter, an interdisciplinary Anthropology-Biology senior from New London, Connecticut, believes that in his work on his thesis, he has uncovered a revolutionizing theory of a famously difficult disease. “As it turns out,” Hunter explains, “cancer is just a social construct.”
Though scientists and doctors have historically attempted to approach the disease from a scientific perspective, attempting to analyze the behavior of cells and biological tissues, Hunter says this approach is misguided. Instead of looking at the empirical world from which diseases arise, he goes on, anyone hoping to understand cancer should start with the collective consciousness of society itself. “Lots of things are understood to be social constructs,” Hunter explains. “For example, when humans first encountered people of other races, they imagined them to be different in all these ways.” These expectations, he said, “were confirmed by observational biases and actually internalized by members of all races until they, in a certain way of speaking, came true.” Thus, Hunter concludes, while there are actual biological differences between races, many of the racial differences people perceive are “actually nothing more than societally contingent—they’re social constructs.”
Similarly, Hunter argues, cancer is little more than “a product of the collective consciousness of Western post-enlightenment capitalist society.” According to his theory, cancerous cells aren’t actually the product of biological mutation; indeed, they are not behaving unnaturally at all. Instead, he says, “the narrative of neo-capitalist hegemonic patriarchal dominance results inevitably in the outgrowth of what we might call the ‘cancerous other’ in our society, that enemy by which we define ourselves.” Western society, he continues, “constructs a narrative in which we feel we must cut this symbolic cancer away to make ourselves pure.” At the same time, “this monolithic bourgeois imperialist society reaches into the minds of its individual members, who internalize its values, norms, and mores into their own conception of self.” The expression of this self-conception, Hunter concludes, “can be found in the collective social imagination of the corporal self—in other words, how we think of our bodies. This leads us to imagine the disease of cancer.”
Hunter, true to his interdisciplinary Anthropology-Biology orientation, finds evidence for this theory in the laboratory as well. “If you look under the microscope at cancerous tumor cells,” he explains (adding quickly that these cells do not actually exist), “you can conduct a critical ethnography of their behavior.” Hunter explains that his lab work reinforces his theoretical suppositions: “I’ve noticed evidence of Western capitalist norm-oriented behavior,” he says. “For example, there are definite class distinctions, and there is an observable program of social propaganda that seeks to sublimate the amaranthine volksgeist of the proletariat class, reifying a notion in which the very positivity of the collective mass consciousness is a function of the radical undecidability of the paradox of its constitution—you know, just like our own everyday life.”
Hunter anticipates criticism of his theory. “You might point out that cancer is observed in many different cultures, which would imply that it’s not socially constructed,” he says. “But I think that just shows how effectively Western capitalist hegemony has influenced the world.” Another potential critique, Hunter adds, is that “if cancer is a social construct, that means it’s all in our heads. So why do we actually observe physical tumors?” This, he says, “would be a really really good question.” However, Hunter says he prefers not to deal with these “sophistic empiricist arguments,” because they confound the issue by “applying physical science to a fundamentally social phenomenon.”
Hunter remains convinced by his explanation of “the cancer phenomenon.” “This is real,” he says. “This is definitely not an April Fool’s joke.” So has Hunter discovered the cure for cancer? “The cure can only come from our minds,” he explains. “It’s something that will only occur after we unshackle ourselves from bourgeois oppression.”
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