Mad studies and social work: Conceptualising the subjectivities of service user/survivors who experience significant mental health problems

Stephen J Macdonald, Anne Charnock, Jane Scutt


This article draws on contemporary and classical psycho–political theorists to conceptualise ‘mental illness’ as a social construct. The research employs a Mad Studies and anti-psychiatry perspective to reframe ‘mental illness’ from an individualised pathological defect to a socially constructed reality (Foucault, 1967; Menzies et al., 2013). The study applies a qualitative biographical methodology to analyse the subjectivities of people with severe mental health problems, their family members and mental health practitioners. In this study, once individuals were conceptualised as pathologically ‘ill’ they were then medicated and often institutionalised as a form of ‘treatment’. The findings present a theoretical analysis of participants’ subjectivities to examine historic and contemporary psychiatric practices. The article will conclude by discussing how Mad Studies can offer social work practice an alternative theoretical standpoint to conceptualise ‘mental illness’ as a social rather than a pathological phenomenon.

Keywords: mad studies; anti-psychiatry movement; ‘mental illness’; biographical methodology; institutionalisation; medicalisation; family

Full Text:



The American Psychiatric Association (2013) The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edn). Arlington: The American Psychiatric Association.

Bertaux, D. (2003) The usefulness of life stories for a realist and meaningful sociology. In R. Humphrey, R. Miller and E. Zdravomyslova (Eds.) Biographical Research in Eastern Europe: Altered lives and broken biographies. London: Ashgate (pp. 39–52).

Cowen, P., Harrison, P. and Burns, T. (2012) Shorter Oxford Textbook of Psychiatry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Deacon, L. (2017) Introduction to social work theory. In L. Deacon and S.J. Macdonald (Eds.) Social Work Theory and Practice. London: Learning Matters, Sage

Esposito, L. and Perez, F.M. (2014) Neoliberalism and the commodification of mental health. Humanity & Society, 38, 4, 414–442

Faulkner, A. (2017) Survivor research and mad studies: The role and value of experiential knowledge in mental health research. Disability & Society, 32, 4, 500–520.

Foucault, M. (1967) Madness and Civilisation. London: Tavistock.

Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish. London: Routledge.

Foucault, M. (2003) Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France 1974–1975. London: Verso.

Goffman, E. (1959) Presentation of Self. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Goffman, E. (1961) Asylums. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Goffman, E. (1964) Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Kafai, S. (2013) The mad border body: A political in-betweeness. Disability Studies Quarterly, 33, 1, ISSN:1041-5718 (Print), 2159-8371 (Online) [Accessed on 5 June 2018 at]

Kelly, S. and McKenna, H. P. (2004) Risks to mental health patients discharged into the community. Health, Risk & Society, 6, 4, 376-385

Laing, R.D. (1959) The Divided Self. London: Penguin Books.

Laing, R.D. (1967) The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise. London: Penguin Books.

Laing, R.D. (1971) The Politics of the Family and Other Essays. London: Tavistock.

LeFrancois, B.A. (2017) Mad studies: Maddening social work. Seminar presented at Connecting for Canada’s 150th: Canadian Visionaries of Critical Social Work, 16-19 November 2017, St Thomas University, Frederichton, New Brunswick [Accessed on 30 May 2018 at].

LeFrancois, B.A., Menzies, R. and Reaume, G. (2013) Mad Matters: A critical reader in Canadian mad studies. Toronto: Canadian Scholar’s Press.

Lewis, L. (2017) A Mad fight. In L. Davis (Ed.) The Disability Studies Reader, 5th edn. London: Routledge (pp. 102–118).

Marina, M. (2013) Recovery. In B. LeFrancois, R. Menzies and G. Reaume (Eds.) Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies. Toronto: Canadian Scholar’s Press.

Mental Health Act (1983). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Mental Health Act (2007). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Menzies, R., LeFrancois, B.A. and Reaume, G. (2013) Introducing mad studies. In B.A. LeFrancois, R. Menzies & G. Reaume (Eds.) Mad Matters: A critical reader in Canadian mad studies. Toronto: Canadian Scholar’s Press (pp. 1–22).

Porter, R. (2006) The Cambridge History of Medicine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scott, S. and Thorpe, C. (2006) The sociological imagination of R.D. Laing. Sociological Theory, 24, 4, 331-352.

Scull, A. (2014) Madness in Civilization: A cultural history of insanity from the Bible to Freud, from the madhouse to modern medicine. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Sedgwick, P. (1987) Psycho Politics. London: HarperCollins

Semple, D. and Smyth, R. (2013) Oxford Handbook of Psychiatry (3rd Edn). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Szasz, T. (1961) The Myth of Mental Illness. St Albans: Paladin.

Szasz, T. (2005) ‘Idiots, infants, and the insane’: mental illness and legal incompetence. Journal of Medical Ethics, 31, 78-81

Szasz, T. (2007) Coercion as Cure: A critical history of psychiatry. London: Transaction Publishers.

Wengraf, T. (2001) Qualitative Research Interviewing. London: Sage.



  • There are currently no refbacks.

Copyright (c) 2018 Social Work and Social Sciences Review