International Symposium Governing uncertainty in drugs and medicines : narratives of risk, progress and decline

Strasbourg, France

October, 1-2, 2019

Medicines have played a pivotal role throughout the 19th and 20th centuries as both instruments of therapeutic progress and dangerous threats to the health of individuals and populations. A linguistic and rhetorical binary accompanies and facilitates these two modes of action. On the one hand, we often think of pharmaceuticals through progressive narratives framed around stories of medical success and power, one in which risks are considered either the result of regrettable yet often understandable failure to adhere to a treatment regime or as a characteristic imbued within the chemical structure of the drug itself. At the same time, we often think of illicit drugs through declension narratives in which these substances pose a threat to the individual and the nation. The dangers of illicit drugs tend to be framed through the lens of either moral failure or external threat while, simultaneously, articulating risk through overlapping discourses of addiction, violence, and moral and physical decay. Pharmaceuticals and illicit drugs, then, somehow seem to be two distinct types of things, even if they are the same physical object. 

However, historical scholarship of the last 30 years has deepened our understanding of our complicated relationship with chemical molecules. The attention given to the porous boundary between illicit drugs and legal medicines; studies on adverse drug events and how they result from complex health systems; the relationship between regulation and the constitution of black and gray markets: these and other interventions have allowed us to move beyond a simplistic reading of heroic devotion to science or moral failure of scientists, physicians, industries, or consumers/patients. They have allowed us to complicate our understanding of the nature of pharmaceutical (drug) risk, who is responsible for it, and how to manage it.

The upcoming conference in Strasbourg seeks to draw on existing literatures about drugs, risk and harm, and governance in order to bring together scholars who share an interest in pharmaceuticals and illicit drugs as objects of scholarly inquiry but who operate in different rhetorical, conceptual, and scholarly domains.  We propose to use the concept of “uncertainty” to re-connect scholarly domains that have been structured and separated, in part, according to the historically constructed categories of heroic science and moral failure—to put into intellectual practice the reconfiguration of knowledge implied by the last 30 years of historical scholarship.  For example: what might a historian of public health who writes on the tobacco industry have to say to a scholar of the criminal justice system who works on the history of crack cocaine? What might a scholar who studies pharmaceutical pricing have to say to a scholar who studies the black market? How does uncertainty become manifest in those different situations? How does risk as both a way of assessing and governing danger (cf Soraya Boudia) change management of uncertainty throughout the 20th century, in both formal and informal settings (markets and others)? What are the various types of uncertainties associated with drugs and pharmaceuticals, how have they changed over time, and does thinking about one type of uncertainty meaningful implications for other forms of uncertainty? Is the risk of overdosing from impure heroin in the 1950s, for example, similar to the risk of having an allergic reaction to penicillin? Do the dangers posed to the scientific enterprise by pharmaceutical industry corruption say anything about the dangers posed to deliberative political processes by corrupt political regimes? Is the danger of not being able to afford insulin similar to the uncertainty of not developing a useful new product due to an overly burdensome regulatory regime? In other words, what does it mean to use the notion of uncertainty as an analytic framework across boundaries of licit and illicit, market and health, biological and political? We believe that such an approach can generate new ways to think about the many problems and questions associated with the development, manufacture, distribution, and consumption of drugs and pharmaceuticals.

Uncertainty is also useful in one additional way:  as a means to analyze futures through aesthetic narrations of promise and peril. How do imagined drug futures depict uncertainty in relation to risk and progress? Are there connections between narrated (or imaged) configurations of uncertainty and pragmatic regulatory regimes? Are aesthetic narrations of uncertainty just a means to an end—a veil to cover the pursuit of profit—and thus only to be taken seriously by the naïve? If so, why and how do they still work (if they do)? Or is it wrong to equate the aesthetic life of uncertainty with drug marketing and the profit imperative? What happens when we see drug aesthetics as multivalent, emerging from multiple locales and carrying more than one agenda?

Conference organisation: 

Nils Kessel (Université de Strasbourg)

Joseph Gabriel (Florida State University)

David Herzberg (University at Buffalo)

This symposium is co-organized by University of Strasbourg, University at Buffalo (SUNY), and Florida State University. It is co-funded by the  ERC BodyCapital project, the Idex CONSENS project, SAGE UMR7363 and ANR project MEDICIS.

Attendance is free, but registration (via email) is required.


Broadcasting health and disease. Bodies, markets and television, 1950s-1980s

19-21 February 2018

Wellcome Trust, 215 Euston Road, London, UK


Throughout the age of television health and body-related subjects have been presented and diffused into the public sphere via a multitude of forms, ranging from short films in health education programmes to school television, from professional training to TV ads, from documentary and reality TV shows to TV news, but also as complementary VHS and similar video formats circulating in private and public spheres. From live transmission of daunting surgical operations or accounts of medication scandals in the 1950s and 1960s to participatory aerobic workouts or militant AIDS documentaries, bodies and health on television and more genuinely the interrelationship of the history of health and bodies and the history of the various TV formats has not been extensively researched. Our assumption is that such audio-visuals are not conceived merely as a mirror or expression of what is observed, but that visuals should be regarded as a distinct, interactive performative power of mass media societies.

The three-day conference aims to investigate how television programmes in their multiplicity approached issues like medical progress and its limits, healthy behaviour or new forms of exercise by adapting them to TV formats and programming. A telling example of this is the US born aerobics movement as it was brought to TV in Europe, in shows such as Gym Tonic (from 1982) in France, Enorm in Form (from 1983) in Germany or the Green Goddess on BBC Breakfast Time (from 1983) in Great Britain. Contemporary, similar and yet differing in national broadcast contexts, the conference seeks to analyse how television and its evolving formats expressed and staged bodies, health and in the above example fitness from local, regional, national and international perspectives. How spectators were invited not only to be TV consuming audiences, but how shows and TV set-ups integrated and sometimes pretended to transform the viewer into a participant of the show. TV programmes spread the conviction that subjects had the ability to shape their own body.

Further, we take into account the long-term evolution of televisual editorialization and staging, notably as it focused on the intimate and adapted to consumer/market logic. We ask what effects these had on the preventive information and the messages related to current health and medical techniques that were diffused.

The conference seeks to better understand the role that TV, as a modern visual mass media, has played in what may be cast as the transition from a national bio-political public health paradigm at the beginning of the twentieth century to societal forms of the late twentieth century when better and healthier lives were increasingly shaped by market forces.

For further information or to register,

The conference is organized by the ERC funded research group BodyCapital, and hosted by Wellcome Collection.

The scientific committee:
Christian Bonah (Université de Strasbourg)
Anja Laukötter (Max-Planck-Institute for Human Development, Berlin)
Tricia Close-Koenig (Université de Strasbourg)
Sandra Schnadelbach (Max-Planck-Institute for Human Development, Berlin)

Angela Saward (Wellcome Collection, London)
Tim Boon (Science Museum, London)
Virginia Berridge (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)
Alex Mold (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)

Conference description (pdf)

Conference programme (pdf)



Colloque national du Collège des Humanités médicales (CoSHSeM) 22-24 juin 2017

Depuis 25 ans (décret de 1992), l’enseignement en sciences humaines et sociales s’est progressivement développé dans les facultés de médecine et les formations en santé en France. Les congrès bisannuels du Collège ont accompagné ce développement en portant l’attention sur les champs de recherche autant que sur les enseignements innovants, avec le souci d’un regard croisé entre enseignants et enseignés.

L’apport des sciences humaines et sociales à la formation médicale se renouvelle et le champ de leurs interventions s’étend, comme en témoignent la diversification et l’émergence de nouvelles thématiques lors des congrès du Collège, par exemple « Littérature et médecine » à Amiens en 2013 ou « Patients mobilisés - patients formateurs » à Lyon en 2015. Pour prendre acte de ces évolutions, le Collège des enseignants en sciences humaines et sociales en médecine a décidé lors de son assemblée générale de 2016 de se renommer en « Collège des Humanités médicales ». Il s’agit de formuler un cadre propice à notre engagement à concevoir et à mettre en œuvre des formations qui contribuent à former les soignants de demain, capables de se situer de manière réflexive et critique dans les contextes renouvelés des pratiques de santé et des engagements thérapeutiques.

Pour accompagner cet engagement et aider à penser le rôle de nos disciplines des SHS dans les études de santé, le Collège lance un appel à proposition pour son colloque national de 2017 : « Les humanités médicales : terrains et enjeux de la recherche et de l’enseignement ».

Le colloque se tiendra du 22 (après-midi) au 24 juin (matin) 2017 à la Faculté de médecine de Strasbourg.

Voir le site :

6ème Congrès SFHST 19-21 avril 2017

La Société Française d’Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques a choisi l’Université de Strasbourg comme lieu pour son prochain colloque national.
Cette manifestation rassemble tous les 3 ans 200 congressistes pendant 3 jours pour un état des lieux de la discipline « Histoire des sciences et des techniques » en France, et sur leurs relations avec les équipes et chercheurs étrangers, notamment en Europe.

Le congrès de la SFHST s’inscrit dans une dynamique de valorisation des travaux et des résultats les plus récents du domaine et notamment ceux des jeunes chercheurs.

Le congrès 2017 aura lieu à la faculté de médecine de Strasbourg située à quelques minutes de la Petite France et de la gare centrale de Strasbourg.


  • Le module d'inscription et de paiement est fermé. Droits d'inscription - plein tarif 55 euros, étudiant 15 euros.
  • Vous pouvez toujours contacter Thérèse Vicente: pour une inscription tardive.

Le colloque aura lieu du 19 avril (12h30) au 21 avril 2017 (18h).

Voir le site :