The Quest | The Free Press of Reed College

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.”

Do you have or know of a thesis that compels attention? Just want to see your face in The Quest? Email with “Cool Thesis” in the subject line.

16 Responses to “Cool Thesis of the Week: Cancer as a Social Construct”
  1. Charles says:

    I read this on March 30. This shouldn’t have been posed until Apil 1.

  2. Mari says:

    I can’t wait until half of Reed gets their panties in a wad over this.

    • Charles says:

      The potential problem with it is that in some fields of the humanities people publish nonsense similar to this without it intending to be a joke. The same style is used. The vaguest connections are made, not substantiated or backed up with evidence, and then obscured with verbose jargon and a lot of big name dropping. I kept reading it for a while with that concern, thinking perhaps the quality of the college had declined.
      Something like “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” Social Text 1996, though that was also a joke.

  3. Austin says:

    Oh my god I hope this is a joke.

  4. Maggie says:

    April Fool’s jokes don’t work so well when they’re not posted on April 1st…

  5. Anon says:

    It might have been a joke, and you might not all be total dimwits, but that was one of the more unfunny and insensitive things to show up in the Quest. In the future, if you’re creating an April Fool’s issue, be clearer about it please.

  6. anonymous-alum says:

    “Jokes” like this make me glad I’m not at Reed anymore.

    People in the Reed community have lost family and friends to cancer. A student died of cancer just last year. It’s not a joke.

  7. Ben W says:

    Sorry anon, but this was too effective a lampooning of the way that overacademicisaztion can disregard common sense and scientific observation for this to not be well received. If you wish to criticize true insensitivity, post on evangelical forums where they stand against life saving research procedures. Many of our loved ones (including mine) suffer from cancer, and it is thus volatile and immediately invokes volatile memories. However, the quality of the piece, with its educational forays into how things such as racial difference can be seen as being socially constructed, sets it apart as high satire. It also effectively provokes those who emotionally respond to a piece and form condemning judgements while either not reading all of an article, or before reaching the end. It clearly explains itself to be an April Fool’s joke. Hopefully those who are outraged can channel their emotion into supporting those who suffer and those who search for a cure.

    • anon says:

      “However, the quality of the piece, with its educational forays into how things such as racial difference can be seen as being socially constructed, sets it apart as high satire.”

      How exactly does that make it effective satire? Race is most definitely socially constructed…

  8. Anonamoose says:

    I maintain that this was hilarious.

  9. Theressa says:

    Still floating around on April 3rd and still pretty horrid!

  10. ACB says:

    I apologize for any unhappiness caused by this article. My intention with it was merely to make comedy by applying the tools of one discipline to the subject matter of another. The article could just as well have been about a Chemistry-Philosophy major who did lab experiments to draw conclusions about morality, or an Psychology-Physics major who did Freudian psychoanalysis of electrons. In no way did I intend for cancer to be the object of the comedy. While I didn’t mean for the article to be an indictment of overacademicisaztion or a satire of social constructionism, I enjoy that people got that out of it. My heart goes out to anyone who knows someone who is suffering from cancer.

  11. MS says:

    Oh for Christ’s sake. The fact that cancer has hurt people doesn’t mean you can never make jokes about it. (It’s hurt my family, I say to establish my bona fides.) If that were true, then you could make jokes about almost nothing; everything’s hurt somebody. This does nothing to trivialize cancer victims’ suffering, or mock them, or do anything with respect to them; it has nothing to DO with cancer victims, apart from being about cancer. It has everything to do with a particularly stupid, and therefore funny-to-mock, practice. This was hilarious.

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