Sub-Projects of the SNF project "Life (beyond) writing: Illness Narratives"

The project is interdisciplinary in nature in that illness narratives will be approached from the three different disciplines: literary and culturalstudies, linguistics and medicine.


SNF IllNarr Home
Miriam Locher's website and Franziska Gygax's website


Literary and cultural studies

 Background/starting point:

  • Enormous increase of illness narratives in the past thirty years.
  • Autobiography studies: New debates and theories about the genre → new fields of inquiry and new genres: literature and medicine,  disability studies, medical humanities, pathographies, autopathographies

Illness narratives and the impact of story-telling/the narrative act:

  • Writing about the experience of being confronted with a life-threatening illness: "To relieve the suffering of the self" (Thomas Couser. Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997: 289).
  • Telling one’s experience of illness: Linked to the continuously changing process of constituting identity/ies.

Research questions:
Representations of the (sick) body (foregrounding of the deteriorating body)

  • What about the relation between this body and the self/selves? (→ Concepts of subjectivity/ embodiment, gendered body).
  • What about the interface between autobiography and identity and the new insights from neuroscience (cf. Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt, 1999)?


  • What is the aesthetic impact of such literary illness narratives?
  • In what ways do they address realms that are not expressed in everyday discourse?

Writing against death and transgressing

  • Writing and being confronted with imminent death; transgressing limits of what one does not know (i.e. death):
  • What effects does this position have on the writing and on the reader (cf. also Die neue Sichtbarkeit des Todes, ed. Thomas Macho and Kristin Marek, München: Fink, 2007)?
  • What about empathy and affect?
  • Writing about the experience of a terminal or very serious illness triggers a contemplation of the "unthinkable", which is the stimulus for a theoretical exploration. See the great number of illness narratives written by academics; these texts do not only give evidence of the experience of illness, but present complex theoretical explorations of the cultural and social construction of illness.
  • How is the dialogue between personal experience and theoretical inquiry achieved?
  • How are moments of disintegration, collapse and transgression described? ( → Cathy Caruth's trauma theory; trauma is not unrepresentable; potential of language)
  • What role does medical discourse play?



  • A corpus of German texts written by Basel medical students on a remarkable encounter during their internship at a GP + questionnaire
  • A parallel corpus of texts and questionnaire in English by medical students at the University of Nottingham (Victoria Tischler)
  • An additional corpus of texts written by doctors (experts) on remarkable encounters, published in medical journals.

Research questions: Illness

  • How is illness conceptualized linguistically (metaphors, semantic fields, jargon, etc.)?

Research questions: Identity construction

  • What linguistic strategies are employed to construct the identities of (novice/expert) doctor and patient?
  • What other protagonists feature in the texts and how are they portrayed / created?
  • How do the students address the dilemma of being a novice while performing in the role of an expert?

Research questions: The question of the text genre

  • Do the texts have a narrative core in the strict (Labovian) sense?
  • In what way is it possible to speak of narratives?
  • What linguistic strategies identified in narrative research occur in the texts and what functions do they fulfill?
  • To what extent does it matter that the text is an assignment written for an instructor?
  • What 'text genre' are we dealing with?

Research questions: Cognitive issues

  • Is there any linguistic evidence of ‘frames’ (structures of expectation with respect to norms, rights, obligations)?
  • What type of metaphors are employed?
  • What analogies are drawn?

Research questions: Cross-cultural comparison

  • Do we find any evidence of cross-cultural differences in the construction of illness and identity when comparing the corpora?  



Studie Reflective Writing von Medizinstudierenden in Basel und Nottingham



SNF IllNarr Home
Miriam Locher's website and Franziska Gygax's website