“Negotiating Truth” – Semmelweis and the Role of Emotions in Public Policy

Anna Durnova
Anna Durnova

by Anna P. Durnová, Ph.D., Hertha-Firnberg Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science University of Vienna

Emotions are at the very core of a myriad of scientific and political disputes. Just take this famous, provocative accusation by Viennese gynaecologist Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis about his fellow physician:

“I declare before God that you are a murderer! The history about ‘childbed fever’ would not be too unfair if it remembers you as a medical Nero.”

In 1846, Semmelweis claimed that “childbed fever,” a disease that afflicted many women giving birth in hospitals, may actually result from doctors not disinfecting their hands before assisting in birthing. Since this occurred in the pre-germ theory era, his thesis grew into a vicious dispute over the duty of hand disinfection as a measure against childbed fever, over which he failed to prevail in his lifetime. Today, the story of Semmelweis is a quintessential example of a scientist who was vilified in life because of his controversial and contentious stand but celebrated in later times (as I analyse in Durnova 2015).

What does this have to do with politics?

I analyse Semmelweis’ case as a case for public policy. Although hand washing is today understood as an effective, simple, and rapid measure to reduce the transmission of germs, and has been integrated into public health agendas all over the world, in his day Semmelweis failed to communicate its necessity: he could not explain the link between doctors’ hands and childbed fever, and, moreover, his thesis was Continue reading

Inspired by the Issue: John Hudson

John Hudson
John Hudson

By John Hudson, Member of the Policy & Politics Editorial Advisory Board and Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, University of York, UK

In the middle of a lengthy discussion of health reforms in his autobiography,  A Journey, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair bemoaned the nature of social scientific research, saying ‘I used to pore over the latest offerings from various highly reputable academic or scholarly quarters, and find nothing of any real practical help’. With his former party once again leaderless and in apparent turmoil following a second successive crushing election defeat, those bidding to follow in Blair’s footsteps as the Labour Party’s next leader will find much food for thought should they pore over the current issue of Policy & Politics.

Looking across Europe, but with a particular focus on the Danish Social Democrats, Christoph Arndt and Kees van Kerbergen explore what they describe as the ‘ill-fated political experience’ of the Third Way approach that Blair once championed. As well as documenting the rise and fall of what once seemed a winning political Continue reading

Huntington’s Disease: normalizing the extraordinary

Mara Tognetti
Mara Tognetti

by Mara Tognetti, Professor of Health Policy at Milan-Bicocca University, Italy

The research project “The community takes care of Huntington’s Disease” – piloted by the Observatory and Methods for Health at the Department of Sociology and Social Research of Milan-Bicocca University and directed by the present author – has conducted free interviews to learn about how health workers and relatives find the task of assisting people with Huntington’s Disease (HD). This is an incurable neuro-degenerative genetic complaint which sets in during the prime of the individual’s life cycle and puts paid to the social and physical existence of patient and family. It places social relations under enormous strain and completely disrupts family, working and social life.

For this reason, and because no kind of therapy yet exists to retard or halt progression, the challenge is both to search for an effective cure and to find ways, from the outset, of supporting those who shoulder the burden: the patient, the family and the health workers.

The research aimed to provide a picture of family needs and difficulties in looking after an HD sufferer. We particularly looked at how caregivers perceive their own requirement for time off for themselves, on the Continue reading

Conceptualising European Integration

Claudia Wiesner
Claudia Wiesner

by Claudia Wiesner,  Acting professor for Comparative Politics and International Development Studies at the University of Marburg in Germany and Associate Professor (dosentti) at Jyväskylä University in Finland.

In my research I currently concentrate on studying political concepts in European integration. During a Marie Curie fellowship at Jyväskylä University´s Finnish centre for Political Thought and Conceptual Change 2012-2014 I developed a research agenda for applying the approaches and practices of conceptual history (or Begriffsgeschichte in German) to the analysis of European integration from a political science perspective.

Political concepts have two dimensions that are particularly important for political science: They first serve as tools for describing, analysing, explaining, and understanding its research objects ‒ concepts serve as analytical and theoretical categories. But, this is a key insight of conceptual history or Begriffsgeschichte, political concepts are not static and immutable, they are themselves contested and controversial and an object of politics. Concepts, second, are factors and indicators of social, institutional and political changes, conflicts or debates. Continue reading