In 1978, the British sociologist Mildred Blaxter called upon other scholars in the field to pay more attention to medical diagnosis, both as a category and as a process. More than thirty years later, she published an authoritative autobiographical paper that critically reflected upon the diagnostic pathway which led to the identification of her own, ultimately fatal cancer. Her insights into the nuances of diagnostic processes within the health care system provide important clues to the areas that demand attention in relation to diagnosis. Despite her earlier call, and its subsequent echo, it is only very recently that the sociology of diagnosis has finally begun to take shape and garner interest. This was the reason why we decided to organise a series of seminars based on the question what a diagnosis might mean for patients, medical professionals, and policy makers alike. A diagnosis has a different meaning for everybody when we have to either deal with it on a personal or professionally basis. There is no such thing as a treatment plan without at least a preliminary diagnosis, and much personal grief has been experienced by people who suffer but do not have a diagnosis. Recent technological advances have also changed the certainty of a diagnosis: for instance, pre-cancerous lesions in cervical cancer are easier to detect but might be the cause for personal concerns that outweigh the benefits of an early diagnosis; some diagnostic tools have made diagnosis very difficult, as for instance with tests for auto-immune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis because the factors that determine a precise diagnosis are not always clear-cut. Questions such as what a diagnosis means and how public understanding and policy making will be changed by new technologies will certainly become a major part of scholarly endeavour and decision making processes in health care.
Even though we, the organisers of this free seminar series, are all sociologists and anthropologists, we draw upon related fields of study including science and technology studies, organisational sociology, health policy, economics, bio-ethics and political debates on new social movements. However, our overall aim of the proposed seminar series is to further develop the sociology of diagnosis. We thus hope that it will elicit debates around the practices, costs and consequences of diagnosis within and beyond these academic circles and explore how health care institutions, professionals, managers, practitioners, patients and carers shape and respond to the shifting nature of diagnosis.
We would like to give thanks to The Wellcome Trust for the images used on this website.