Published on Harvard Magazine( ) Home > On the Medicalization of Our Culture On the Medicalization of Our Culture 4.23.09 There are perhaps few academic topics of equal interest to scholars of history, law, anthropology, neuroscience, and literature. But this was part of the point when scholars of these disciplines gathered on April 22 for a symposium on medicalization —a phenomenon, they argued, that has infiltrated nearly every facet of modern life. This explains how Christopher Lane , a professor of literature at Northwestern University, came to write a book about social anxiety disorder and commercial interests' role in the condition's definition and in the approval of drugs to treat it. In the introduction to his talk, Lane offered these general comments: Medicalization isn’t the most elegant noun…but it’s the best one we have for describing how common emotions and traits are turned into treatable conditions. Bad breath becomes halitosis, for example, and impotence erectile dysfunction. Even overdoing plastic surgery gets a brand-new name: body dysmorphic disorder. To put it bluntly, this process of pathologizing has gotten out of control. It’s become a juggernaut that no one seems able to stop.Lane outlined the history of social anxiety disorder, as presented in his book: a name change from “social phobia”; the 1997 action by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to relax restrictions and allow direct-to-consumer advertising (which only one other country, New Zealand, allows); a subsequent ad campaign that likened the disorder to being "allergic to people," created by an advertising agency that also served such major corporations as Visa. Jennifer Fishman, assistant professor in the department of social studies of medicine at McGill University, divined a similar conspiracy in the definition of erectile dysfunction and the development and approval of Viagra. Until the 1960s, she said, impotence was regarded as a natural part of aging. With the sexual revolution, impotence was reenvisioned as a psychological condition treatable with psychotherapy; in the 1980s, she said, Western society began to move toward its current view, actively encouraged by the field of urology. With too little business for the number of practicing urologists, Fishman asserted, a group of doctors founded the International Society for Impotence Research in
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