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  • Diagnosing Folklore: Perspectives on Disability, Health, and Trauma ed. by Trevor J. Blank and Andrea Kitta
  • Jon D. Lee
Diagnosing Folklore: Perspectives on Disability, Health, and Trauma. Ed. Trevor J. Blank and Andrea Kitta. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015. Pp. x + 232, acknowledgments, contributors, index.)

The folkloristic study of disability, health, and trauma, while still small, has blossomed in the past few decades as folklorists have taken the discipline’s cultural theories and applied them to the changing landscape of health management. Diagnosing Folklore moves these theories still further by providing a series of case studies, each of which offers new perspectives and models that add nuance and critical evaluation to existing paradigms, expanding our base of knowledge and providing directions for future research.

The volume’s 10 essays are organized into three sections. Part 1 examines “Disability, Ethnography, and the Stigmatized Vernacular”; part 2 continues with “Folk Knowledge, Belief, and Treatment in Regional and Ethnic Health Praxis”; and part 3 concludes with “The Performance of Mental Illness, Stigma, and Trauma.” The majority of the authors featured will be familiar to folklorists who study health issues, demonstrating the editors’ care in selecting their sources. Evident, too, are the breadth and depth of referenced topics and folk groups, including studies of Special Olympics athletes, diabetic patients, autistic Javanese, women healers, deranged psychopaths, people with bipolar disorder, medical fetishists, and veterans.

The volume’s introduction ties these disparate groups together. The editors state that they aim to expand the study of health and stigma by “further [stimulating] dialogue on theory and fieldwork methodologies in conceptualizing folkloristic approaches to the study of disability, health, and trauma,” since “over the last five years, there [has been] a comparative absence of corresponding, published folkloristic scholarship” (p. 3) in these areas. They emphasize the need for scholars to “act as more than ventriloquists, making sure that the primary purpose of their scholarship aligns with the intent of their participants” (p. 4), and they call for a more expansive examination of the roles of stigma, disability, and power relationships in folkloristic studies of health and medicine, since the “need for scholarship in these areas is not only theoretical, but also practical” (p. 14). This last point especially echoes throughout the volume’s essays, each of which attempts to provide a series of points that could be applied by both folklorists and health practitioners to further the dialogue between examiner and examinee.

Among these essays, several stand out. Amy Shuman’s “Disability, Narrative Normativity, and the Stigmatized Vernacular of Communicative (in)Competence” renews the call for communicative competence between folklorist and interviewee by highlighting the importance of multiple recognized valences of “normalcy.” By examining interviews of individuals with intellectual disabilities, Shuman demonstrates how “communicative competence depends upon the co-production of meaning” (p. 30) created by interviewer and interviewee, as well as by careworker and interviewee. In doing so, Shuman “asks whether the category of normal conversation might be expanded to include” such co-production (p. 33), thus providing a critique of ableism and evincing how standard definitions of “normalcy” fall short by stigmatizing difference. It is only by recognizing that co-produced meaning is also valid that folklorists can move away from these faults.

Sheila Bock and Kate Parker Horigan’s “Invoking the Relative: A New Perspective on Family Lore in Stigmatized Communities,” and Michael Owen Jones’ “Latina/o Local Knowledge about Diabetes: Emotional Triggers, Plant Treatments, and Food Symbolism,” bridge the gap between the stigmatized vernacular and ethnic health praxis through their shared examination of lay responses to diabetes and how families create critical loci of response and meaning. Horigan’s interviews with survivors of Hurricane Katrina, for example, confront the stigma that survivors of tragedies face, especially when forced to choose between personal and familial salvation. Both race and poverty complicate these issues, creating fatalistic responses among those suffering, whose frequent efforts to supplement help offered through official channels with that provided by folk knowledge are often met with official scorn. As [End Page 231] Bock and Horigan conclude, “professionals engaged in this important work could benefit from more explicit attention to negotiations in people’s articulations of their beliefs, especially when...


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pp. 231-232
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