Violence as Contagious: Historicising Narratives of Violence, Health, and Disease, 1800s to the Present

Posted: 5 July, 2024

In this blog, we hear from Irish Research Council DOROTHY MSCA COFUND awardee Dr Sophie Franklin on her research on nineteenth century writers referring to violence as a disease, to shed light on ongoing public health approaches to the reduction and cure of violence.

In 1996, the World Health Organisation declared violence a major ‘health burden’. Since then, violence has routinely been positioned as a global health emergency. Gun violence which affects many communities worldwide has been referred to as a public health crisis. Yet when did the connections between violence and public health first become embedded in the English-language imagination as an influential narrative? And how might the development of a clearer history of such a phenomenon aid ongoing treatments of violence today?

Through close analysis of work by writers including Anne Brontë and Arthur Morrison, Dr Sophie Franklin’s research locates this moment in the nineteenth century, at a time when an increasing number of fiction and non-fiction writers were explicitly referring to violence as a disease, sometimes literally and other times metaphorically. The extract above from William A. Alcott’s The Laws of Health (1857) provides one such example. The nineteenth century was an age of global contagion: advances in medical science and legal interventions led to the popularisation of an English-language vocabulary of infection that influenced conceptualisations of violence. Understandings of violence changed from being predominantly linked to sin and self-determined morality to something that could be understood through technologies of observation and control, which had also emerged around contagious diseases in the Victorian period. Such a shift developed alongside a tendency to compare and overlap conceptions of violence and contagious disease, coalescing in the construction of the “violence as contagious” narrative, which became central to debates around criminal responsibility and the rise of violence as a cultural problem.

Sophie’s project – ‘Violence as Contagious: Historicising Anglophone Narratives of Violence, Health, and Disease, 1800s to the Present’ – examines this historical context in order to shed light on ongoing public health approaches to the reduction and cure of violence. In particular, she is engaging with current public discourses surrounding treating violence as a public health crisis through the analysis of Violence Reduction Units (VRUs), government-funded initiatives in the UK that adopt public health methods to tackle violence within communities and across society. They bring together expertise from sectors including police forces, healthcare, education, and social services to identify risks and intervene effectively, such as when a child is excluded from school or is exposed to domestic violence at home. In the process, Sophie’s project emphasises the significance of violence in historical narratives of health and explores how nineteenth-century imaginings of violence as contagious anticipate and potentially inform ongoing public health approaches to violence today, through identifying both effective and detrimental implications of such interventions.

In the words of Sophie: “I am really thrilled to be part of the MSCA DOROTHY fellowship programme. The fellowship will give me the unique opportunity to expand my research into even more interdisciplinary areas, such as ethnography and qualitative research, while enabling me to engage with the public’s understanding of treating violence like a disease. For instance, do people today generally see violence as related to health? And how might current perceptions of violence and health differ from nineteenth-century perspectives? I’m also really looking forward to working with the other DOROTHY fellows too and learning from their work on different public health crises.”

Sophie recently presented her project to the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading, where she is currently based during her outgoing phase of the fellowship. She is also writing a blogpost as part of a specialist series on Public Health Humanities for the BMJ Medical Humanities website. In September 2024, she will present her research at the British Association for Victorian Studies’ conference at Cardiff University, which is part of the international flightless EVENT programme for researchers within nineteenth-century studies. You can follow her on X @_sophiefranklin and read more about her research on her website.

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