Sarah Wilcox

Undergraduate Discipline

Sociology

BA, Wesleyan University. MA, PhD, University of Pennsylvania. Areas of expertise include medical sociology, the sociology of science and knowledge, gender and sexuality, and the mass media; special interests in interactions among experts, laypersons, and social movements. Recent new courses in disability studies and the politics of health. Author of articles on lay knowledge and expertise and on media coverage of biological ideas about sexuality. SLC, 2005–

Current undergraduate courses

Disabilities and Society

Fall

In this seminar, we will broadly consider the topic of disability within contemporary society, examining questions of social justice, discrimination, rights, identities, and cultural representations. Disability studies is an interdisciplinary field of academic study that emerged out of disability rights movements and has, therefore, focused on how social structures are disabling, limiting, and exclusionary. In concert with this perspective, we will study the history of the disability rights movement, including the passage and ramifications of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We will also consider tensions within disability movements, including the difficulties inherent in mobilizing a collective identity that encompasses a wide range of conditions and circumstances. In addition to political mobilization, we will analyze cultural meanings and representations of physical, psychological, and cognitive disabilities. Cultural representations of disability shape our assumptions and expectations, while disability activists have used literature and art to contest stigma and create new kinds of representations of non-normative bodies and selves. Finally, we will consider questions of embodiment, self, and identity. Disability is typically defined in terms of physical or mental impairment, which implies that there is a “normal” state of nonimpairment. Defining disability has been highly contested, both because of the stigma attached to those who are seen as different and because many people with conditions that have been labeled as disabilities do not see their conditions in negative terms. Most of us will experience some degree of impairment at some point in our lives; but only some of us will be seen as, or identify ourselves as, disabled. Some disabilities are a part of identity from an early age, and others develop later in life. Thus, we will consider the relationship between embodiment, ability, and selfhood, looking at how people negotiate identity in relation to social categories and their own embodied experiences.

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Health Policy/Health Activism

Year

How does your race, class, gender, and where you live and work influence whether you get sick? Why does the United States spend more on health care than other countries yet rank relatively low on many measures of good health? How likely is it that you will have access to health care when you need it? Can we make affordable health care available to more people? What do we mean by “public health”? What is the role of government in providing health care or managing the health of populations? In this course, we will investigate these questions directly and by studying health social movements. Health activists have not only advocated for particular diseases and for research funding but also have sought to reduce stigma, uncover health disparities and environmental injustices, and democratize medical research. We will begin the year by studying these social movements in conjunction with studying patterns of ill health; i.e., who gets sick and why? We will then examine the history and contemporary meanings of “health,” examining the moral values attached to health and illness and questions of medical authority and medical knowledge. In the spring semester, we will turn to health-care systems, both within the United States and globally. We will study programs of health-care reform in the United States and other countries, international health policy, and specific health policy issues such as vaccination, genetic screening, and the ethics of medical research. Throughout the year, we will explore—through the lens of health—broad questions of social justice, inequalities, governance, activism, and the environment.

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Queer Bodies: A Cultural History of Medical and Scientific Knowledge

Spring

How have physicians and scientists studied and understood differences in sex, gender, and sexuality? What categories have they used, and how have these categories and the assumptions underlying them changed over time? How have popular conceptions of gender and sexuality influenced science and vice versa? What has been at stake in viewing social differences as located in the body? How can we understand the medicalization and pathologization of queer bodies, genders, and sexualities in relation to broader cultural, moral, and political agendas? In this seminar, we will examine the history of scientific and medical study of sexual behavior, hormonal systems, the brain, and genetics. We will consider the varying relationships of gay, transgender, and intersex communities with science and medicine and tensions within those communities over whether scientific and medical knowledge is empowering or alienating. The books that we read will introduce students to the variety of methods and approaches used in the historical and sociological study of science and medicine, from close evaluation of the scientific evidence itself to analysis of the production of knowledge as a social activity and to broad analysis of science and medicine within politics, popular culture, and social movements. Conference work could hew closely to the topic of the seminar through the study of a particular debate, historical period, or area of scientific or medical research; or it could extend outwards to a broader set of topics, such as hormones and transgender health, the role of science in religious debates over sex and sexuality, or representations of queer bodies in art or popular culture.

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Related Cross-Discipline Paths

Previous courses

Embodiment and Biological Knowledge: Public Engagement in Medicine and Science

Spring

In this course, we will explore when, why, and how biological ideas become salient to people’s identities and to political debates, whether and how closely popular conceptions of biology and the physical body match scientific and medical knowledge, and the variations in the extent to which biological knowledge is seen as relevant to particular conceptions of the self or social controversies over the body. Why have vaccinations become controversial, and what understandings of the immune system underlie these controversies? How does the subjective nature of pain figure into controversies over contested illnesses such as fibromyalgia or repetitive strain syndrome? What do “genes” or “genetics” mean in social or cultural terms? How do hormones figure into our cultural understanding of gender and into people’s own gendered self-identities, particularly at times of hormonal change such as puberty, hysterectomy, or taking hormones as part of aligning the physical body with gender identity? In sociology and anthropology, medical and scientific knowledge has often been described as alienating, distancing people from their direct embodied experiences. Yet, to be a body is also always to be in a social context; so that perception is simultaneously cultural and physical. While medical and scientific knowledge provide us with ideas about our bodies that we cannot directly experience (e.g., our genes), these ideas can be deeply embedded and socially powerful explanatory systems. Thus, scholars have also argued that rather than alienating us from ourselves and our bodies, medical knowledge is constitutive of bodies and selves. Biological ideas and terms also circulate freely, so that popular conceptions of biology or physiology and scientific knowledge may not map neatly onto each other. We will explore these themes of bodily association and dissociation, science as alienating or constitutive, and popularization and expertise through various domains of biological knowledge, embodiment, and public debate. Past course work in the social sciences is beneficial but not required.

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First-Year Studies: Understanding Mass Media: Theories and Methods of Sociological Analysis

FYS

The mass media profoundly shape everyday reality. We become aware of the world beyond our immediate experience through media representations and virtual social networks. Representations do not simply convey information but also structure our understanding of society, the meaning of social categories, and our sense of self. This course will provide an introduction to theories of media and society, including the media as a component within capitalist economies, as a public sphere in democratic societies, and as a form of culture. We will explore how the media make meaning and how social identities are reflected and constructed through media products. We will consider the role of audiences as recipients of media messages and as active participants in the use of media in everyday life. And we will examine new information technologies—including blogs, forums, wikis, and Web sites—to investigate whether they change the relationships between individuals and media institutions, between media professionals and the public, between experts and lay people, or between governments and citizens. Our readings on social theories about the media will be paired with empirical examples from studies of newspapers, television, movies, radio, magazines, advertising, and the Internet. Students will learn methods of media analysis—including narrative analysis, genre theory, content analysis, framing, and semiotics—and apply them in collaborative projects and conference work. Although it will include interdisciplinary content, the class will be rigorous and is likely to appeal to students with an interest in studying and applying theories and methods from the social sciences.

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Medical Technologies

Fall

Medical technologies—such as artificial heart valves, genetic screening tests, new drug treatments, and visual imaging devices—are continually being invented and incorporated into medical practice and everyday life. Technology has alternately been viewed as leading to miraculous improvements in human life or as unnatural and dehumanizing. In this course, we will explore these views of medical technology, while also asking sociological questions. How are new technologies produced and incorporated into medical practice? How are medical technologies an outcome of interaction among multiple social actors, including physicians, patients, entrepreneurs, pharmaceutical companies, government regulatory agencies, and social movement activists? How have boundaries such as “natural” or “technological” been established and contested? Are new technologies contributing to increasing health-care costs? How are the risks of new technologies regulated, and how is access to them determined? 

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Politics of Health

Fall

In contemporary American society, “health” is both highly politicized and apolitical. Health is accepted as an unequivocal social good and unquestioned personal aspiration. No one can be “against health.” At the same time, the structure of our health-care system and the possibilities for reform have been the focus of intense political debates. In this lecture, we will examine the following kinds of questions: What is “health”? What is “public health”? In political and cultural debates about health, how has the body become the focal point of new kinds of moralisms? Why are there patterns in health, so that some groups live longer and have less illness than others? Why does the United States spend more on health care than other countries yet rank relatively low on many measures of good health? How likely is it that you will have access to health care when you need it? Can we make affordable health care available to more people? We will examine both the social and cultural meanings of health and the political and policy debates about health and health care.

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Understanding Mass Media: Theories and Methods of Sociological Analysis

Year

The mass media profoundly shape everyday reality. We become aware of the world beyond our immediate experience through media representations and virtual social networks. Representations do not simply convey information but also structure our understanding of society, the meaning of social categories, and our sense of self. This course will provide a thorough introduction to theories of media and society, including the media as a component within capitalist economies, as a public sphere in democratic societies, and as a form of culture. We will explore how the media make meaning and how social identities are reflected and constructed through media products. We will consider the role of audiences as recipients of media messages and as active participants in the use of media in everyday life. And we will examine new information technologies—including blogs, forums, wikis, and websites—to investigate whether they change the relationships between individuals and media institutions, between media professionals and the public, between experts and lay people, and/or between governments and citizens. Our readings on social theories about the media will be paired with empirical examples from studies of newspapers, television, movies, radio, magazines, advertising, and the Internet. Students will learn methods of media analysis—including narrative analysis, genre theory, content analysis, framing, and semiotics—and apply them in collaborative projects and conference work. Although this course will include interdisciplinary content, the class will be rigorous and is likely to appeal to students with a strong interest in studying and applying theories and methods of qualitative social science.

Faculty