PhD Standard: Whats in a label? The functions and consequences of a diagnosis of autism

University of Exeter

In standard medical texts, diagnosis is depicted as a relatively simple process in which the doctor identifies disease/disorder from signs and symptoms located in the body in much the same way as a mechanic identifies faults in a car engine. Sociologists have recently problematised this, drawing attention to diagnosis as a social process, in and through which medicine exerts its authority, and one that can have profound consequences for patients in terms of health and social status.

This PhD offers an opportunity to contribute to the emerging sociology of diagnosis, using autism as a case study. Autism is a highly contested condition, with shifting clinical boundaries that have resulted in growing numbers of children and adults being diagnosed as autistic or as having an autistic spectrum disorder. Some people who have received a diagnosis of autism regard themselves as belonging to an oppressed group and regard medical diagnosis as a tool for their oppression, seeing their autism not as a pathology but as ‘a different way of being.’ At the same time, many adults seek out a medical diagnosis and feel validated by it. Some adults self-diagnose, usurping the role of doctor and challenging its authority.

Through qualitative interviews (face-to-face or using other media), the student will investigate what adults with a diagnosis of autism believe the diagnosis ‘does’ for them, how and under what circumstances. A particular focus will be on the phenomenon of self-diagnosis, and on the role of agency in obtaining a medical diagnosis. This will be situated within the wider context of labelling theory and more recent debates about the medicalisation of everyday life, and will contribute to the development of a social model of autism.

Academic Supervisors: 

Professor Christabel Owens

Dr Ginny Russell

Professor Susan Kelly

Funding Notes: The studentship will be fully-funded for UK/EU students, including a stipend of £20,000 per annum (based on the full-time 16/17 rate, rising to £23,000 in year three). Tuition fees will be paid at the UK/EU rate.   International students who are ineligible for UK/EU fee levels are welcome to apply, but must have certified and guaranteed means to fund the additional fees required.

Entry requirements: Applicants should have, or expect to obtain, either a first or upper-second class BSc (or equivalent) in a social science or health-related discipline. International applicants must also have IELTS [International English Language Testing System] score of 7 and above (or equivalent qualification).

How to apply: Click here to apply

Please be aware you will be asked to upload the following:

  • CV
  • Letter of application (outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project.
  • Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained (this should be an interim transcript if you are still studying)
  • If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your proficiency in English (see entry requirements)

Please email any general enquiries about the application process to  Project specific queries should be directed to the lead supervisor.

We regret that only candidates shortlisted for interview will be contacted.

Application deadline: Midnight on 28th October 2016

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South West England