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The Culture of Stress

Richard Wilkinson - Allan Young - William Dressler - Rita Yusuf - Wolfgang Eckart - Dominique Behague - Christian Strümpell - Adrian Loerbroks - Hasan Ashraf - Maria Steinisch - Nike-Ann Schröder - Saskia Rohmer


May 22 – 23, 2012

Organizers: Christian Strümpell, Adrian Loerbroks

Karl Jaspers Centre
Voßstraße 2, Building 4400, Room 212
69115 Heidelberg
Admission free 

The workshop

Less than a century ago, Western medical science developed the concept of 'stress’. After the Second World War this concept was rapidly disseminated by the mass media, and it now permeates everyday discourse in the West. In Europe and North America, stress is the dominant trope on the predicament of modern fast-paced and success-oriented societies, especially in the context of modern work: about one out of four European workers reports having to work at very high speed all or almost all the time, and in the USA one out of four workers complains of being frequently burned out or stressed by his or her job. Correspondingly, it is Western occupational psychology that provides many of the dominant research models on stress such as the 'effort-reward-imbalance'-model or the 'job-demand-control-(support)'-model.

With (neoliberal) globalization, success-oriented Western work regimes and life-styles and the ‘stress’ associated with them are allegedly spreading across the globe, especially into the Asian growth economies. Epidemiological research has however predominantly focused on stress and its health effects in Western populations. So far 'stress' and its historical and socio-cultural contingency in Asia have been largely neglected by quantitative sciences. At the other end of the academic continuum, a dominant strand in contemporary humanities regards stress as merely 'socially constructed', and fails to engage with the considerable medical and epidemiological knowledge that has been gained about it.

The aim of our workshop is to combine epidemiological research on the spread of what the Western medical discourse frames as 'stress' with anthropological and historical approaches investigating the transcultural processes by which phenomena such as stress emerge and are embedded into very different socio-cultural settings.

We therefore invited epidemiologists, public health researchers, social anthropologists and historians to address one or several of the following questions:

  • How are living conditions, life events and lifestyles that in Western lay and professional discourse are thought to generate 'stress' perceived, framed and acted upon in particular social settings in non-Western countries?
  • How does the emergence of 'stress' relate to, augment, and/ or supplant other, local concepts making sense of difficult living conditions, life events and lifestyles, and what are the effects of this change in categories on the subjectivities of those involved?
  • What are the (transcultural) trajectories and who are the (transcultural) actors involved in the dissemination of the concept of 'stress'? What are the political economic processes behind it?
  • What are culture-specific sources of stress and buffering factors?
  • What is known about the effect of stress due to social inequalities or working environments around the world?
  • What are promising areas for future ethno-epidemiological research?

  • Methodological questions:
  • What are the methodological challenges for conducting interdisciplinary ethno-epidemiological research?
  • How can anthropological and historical research best be combined with quantitative public health research?
  • What are the practical experiences and difficulties inherent in ethno-epidemiological research?





Richard Wilkinson (Nottingham)

Allan Young (Montreal)


Click on the picture to access the workshop programme and project description.

* Picture Kristin Herrmann, Visualising Stress Effects