Psychiatry has always aimed to peer deep into the human mind, daring to cast light on its darkest corners and untangle its thorniest knots, often invoking the latest medical science in doing so. But, as Owen Whooley’s sweeping new book tells us, peering deep into the human mind is, well, really hard.
On the Heels of Ignorance: Psychiatry and the Politics of Not Knowing (University Chicago Press, 2019) begins with psychiatry’s formal inception in the United States in the 1840s and moves through two centuries of constant struggle simply to define and redefine mental illness, to say nothing of the best way to treat it. Whooley’s book is no anti-psychiatric screed, however; instead, he reveals a field that has muddled through periodic reinventions and conflicting agendas of curiosity, compassion, and professional striving. On the Heels of Ignorance draws from intellectual history and the sociology of professions to portray an ongoing human effort to make sense of complex mental phenomena using an imperfect set of tools, with sometimes tragic results.
In this interview, Dr. Whooley and I discuss the sociology of knowledge and ignorance that guide this book. We then discuss the changing identity of the field of psychiatry, how the DSM affected the legitimacy and perception of the discipline, and ways of managing ignorance. I highly recommend this book for students, professors, and anyone else interested in sociology of knowledge, health and illness and medical sociology, historical sociology, and mental health.
Dr. Owen Whooley is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of New Mexico and Senior Fellow, UNM Center for Health Policy.
Krystina Millar is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Indiana University. Her research interests include gender, sociology of the body, and sexuality. You can find her on Twitter at @KrystinaMillar.
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