The Chronic: Temporality, Care and Health Research (Symposium, Birkbeck University, 17 March 2016)

Supported by The Wellcome Trust, Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, Independent Social Research Foundation and the Department of Psychosocial Studies

  • Morning session (10am – 12.30pm) Room B04, 43 Gordon Square, London, WC1H 0PD.
  • Afternoon session (1.30pm – 5pm) Room B34, Malet Street main Building, London, WC1E 7HX. Torrington Square main entrance

Free event open to all: Book your place

The idea of the chronic circumscribes illness and disease with particular temporal parameters. It designates a persistent or recurrent condition lasting three months or more, but beyond this specific diagnostic usage it operates to structure the time of healthcare in subtle yet far-reaching ways. Distinguishing the chronic from the acute is fundamental to medical practice, determining degrees of urgency, treatment types, and waiting times. While conditions such as dementia and cancer may be serious and often fatal, they are nevertheless characterised in terms of a kind of slowness. Chronic time is therefore complex and contradictory: For the sufferer it may entail states of on-going crisis and emergency, but simultaneously a stilled, arrested and even recursive time. There may be cycles of remission and relapse, uncertain prognosis, waiting for treatment, and simply waiting to see. ‘Time hangs heavy, yet there is so little of it’ as the dying cancer patient in Margaret Edson’s play, Wit, states. Chronic time may be simultaneously urgent and slow, both terminal and interminable.

This one-day symposium brings together invited speakers from a broad range of backgrounds and contexts to consider the complexities of the category ‘the chronic’ and its relation to healthcare. Through a series of short papers followed by roundtable discussion, it approaches this topic from the perspective of health policy; psychosocial, temporal, performance and cultural studies; history; the postcolonial and transnational; and the literary.

Opening up a genuinely interdisciplinary conversation allows some new and important questions to be asked:

  • How does the chronic function as a category in medicine and in culture more broadly?
  • How does its slowed-down time relate to the accelerated times and technologies of modernity?
  • What are the (bio)politics of the chronic, and how does it work to structure not only health practice and our experience of illness, but also to determine ideas of bodily time, urgency and waiting?
  • What other time signatures are enabled or occluded by it?
  • How is the trajectory of chronic temporality complicated on the one hand by regimes of end-of-life and palliative care, for instance, and on the other by the populist identity politics of ‘survivorship’?
  • To what extent can it be thought of as a culturally and historically specific temporal mode, or even a description of ‘our times’? What are its genealogies and antecedents?
  • How does chronic time operate as it moves between cultures, and between times, and with what effects?


  • Lisa Baraitser (Reader, Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck)
  • Shaul Bar Haim (Post-doctoral researcher, Waiting Times, Birkbeck)
  • Michelle Bastian (Chancellor’s Fellow, University of Edinburgh)
  • David Bell (Consultant Psychiatrist, Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, & Psychoanalyst, Institute of Psychoanalysis)
  • Victoria Browne (Lecturer in Politics, Oxford Brookes)
  • Felicity Callard (Reader in Geography, University of Durham and Director of Hubbub at Wellcome Collection)
  • Marion Coutts (Senior Lecturer in Fine Art, Goldsmiths, and author of The Iceberg: A Memoir, Winner of the Wellcome Book Prize)
  • Yasmin Gunaratnam (Reader in Sociology, Goldsmiths)
  • Rhodri Hayward (Senior Lecturer on History of Medicine, Queen Mary)
  • Alex Mold (Senior Lecturer in History, London School of Hygiene &Tropical Medicine)
  • Martin O’Brien (Performance Artist, Lecturer in Drama, Queen Mary)
  • Gill Partington (Post-doctoral researcher, Waiting Times, Birkbeck)
  • Mathew Thomson (Professor of History, University of Warwick)
  • Denise Riley (Professor of the History of Ideas and Poetry at the University of East Anglia)
  • Laura Salisbury (Senior Lecturer, Medicine & English Literature, University of Exeter)
  • Lynne Segal (Anniversary Professor of Psychology and Gender Studies, Birkbeck)

This event is organised and led by two post-doctoral researchers, Dr. Shaul Bar-Haim and Dr. Gill Partington, based in the Department of Psychosocial Studies. They are currently working with Dr. Lisa Baraitser (Psychosocial Studies) and Dr. Laura Salisbury (English and Medical Humanities, University of Exeter) on a project entitled ‘Waiting Times’ funded by The Wellcome Trust.

This project aims to re-think ‘waiting time’ in relation to mental health, medical contact time, and end of life care. The symposium will include presentations from Shaul Bar-Haim and Gill Partington on their findings from two scoping studies on the history of waiting in the NHS, and the temporalities of end of life care. Bringing this research into focused dialogue with leading scholars in different fields, the symposium will develop an interdisciplinary, historically situated, and thickly descriptive account of the extended temporality of health and care, including their relation to the current NHS – an institution itself imagined as caught between states of emergency and chronic decline.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *