The limits of narrative: medical student resistance to confronting inequality and oppression in literature and beyond

Med Educ. 2005 Oct;39(10):1056-65. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2929.2005.02270.x.


Introduction: Upon designing and implementing a literature course on family values for Year 4 medical students, we found that while the supposed benefits of literary inquiry were to lead students to a deeper understanding of difficult issues such as illness and violence in the family, many of our students were unable to engage critically with the course material. This, we believe, was a result of their resistance to confronting issues such as inequality and oppression. This paper is an attempt to theorise student resistance to difficult, unruly subjects they encounter in a literature class, particularly those surrounding race, gender, social class and sexual identity.

Methods: We modify some of the expansive claims made by narrative medicine and put forth a new pedagogical and curricular approach to the uses of literature in medical education.

Results: We found that many students resisted course material and corresponding discussions, especially those related to sexual identity and non-traditional family values, male-female relationships and white racism.

Discussion: To reduce student resistance, we pose a more critical approach to narrative inquiry in medical settings that may deepen students' willingness to imagine what it is like to be someone who is suffering, and to work against oppressive social structures that sustain such suffering. Thus, we recommend moving narrative inquiry beyond a focus on the self and the patient in that individualised, circumscribed relationship and into a collective process involving the social, political, cultural and economic conditions that affect health and well-being.

MeSH terms

  • Curriculum
  • Education, Medical, Undergraduate / methods*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Literature*
  • Male
  • Narration*
  • Social Values
  • Students, Medical / psychology*