Corker, Mairian and Tom Shakespeare, eds. Disability/Postmodernity: Embodying Political Theory. London: Continuum, 2002. Print.



In this collection, Corker and Shakespeare are trying to bring postmodern theory and disability into conversation with one another for the benefit of both. They argue that, while the social model has been politically useful, it is a comprehensive framework for thinking about disability, specifically because it lacks a theoretical base. For Corker and Shakespeare, the lack of a theoretical foundation is what has excluded the social model of disability from mainstream social theory. As Iris Marion Young explains in her forward to the book, this collection tries to advance the critiques of the social model by challenging the way that the social model of disability tends to treat the body as static. This postmodern challenge is a complement to the important work of the social model and is not meant to displace it in the way the social model displaces a medical model of disability. Resisting a radical form of postmodernism that emphasizes disembodiment, hyperfragmentation, and the end of all metanarratives, the editors endorse strategic forms of postmodernism that respond to the challenges of modernism with an emphasis on political resistance and social change. Corker and Shakespeare argue that postmodernism can contribute to the creation of inclusive societies, which makes it even more important that disability studies engages in a conversation with postmodern theory.

Chapter Highlights:

  • Anne Wilson and Peter Beresford, “Madness, Distress, and Postmodernity: Putting the Record Straight:” This piece looks as the discourse of mental illness as increasing difference and stigma by casting mental health services users as Other. Looking specifically at the documentation of mental illness, the authors argue that the social model is not complex enough to help with mental illness. They argue that medical records of mental illness stick with a person even though the tools of diagnosis are imprecise and often lack validity, and that these records are partial, negative, exclude the patient’s voice, and are often not accessible to patients.
  • Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick, “Bodies Together: Touch, Ethics and Disability”: In this piece the authors are trying to push on the binaries established through liberal models of rights and identities, arguing that the body is materialized through discourse and that embodied subjectivity is produced in relation to other body-subjects. They argue that Disability Studies needs to consider how “disabled” and “able-bodied” are mutually constructed.
  • Shelley Tremain, “On the Subject of Impairment:” Tremain uses Foucault to challenge the social model’s division of ‘impairment’ (as physical description) and disability (as a product of the environment). She specifically challenges the way ‘impairment’ is treated as static and prediscursive and uses Foucault to argue that “matter is an effect of the historical conditions and contingent relations of power” (41).


I find Corker and Shakespeare’s discussion of the social model of disability one of the most useful points of this book. Not only do they provide a nice, comprehensive definition of the social model (see below), but I appreciate the way that they challenge the social model as a way of expanding and advancing the work that model of disability has already done. In particular, I find their argument that the social model could benefit from a strong theoretical base and the critique of the tendency for the social model to treat impaired bodies as static compelling claims. Tremain’s chapter does a nice job of extending these arguments.

Key Quotes:

“The social model of disability, particularly given its roots in historical materialism, is perhaps an example of the socialist counterculture. This model makes a conceptual distinction between disability and impairment, similar to the feminist distinction between gender and sex. It see disability as socially created, or constructed on top of impairment, and places the explanation of its changing character in the social and economic structure and culture of the society in which it is found. The body of knowledge and practice that constitutes the social model is primarily concerned with the political project of emancipation and, in some of its interpretations, with the development of an oppositional politics of identity.” (Corker and Shakespeare, “Mapping the Terrain,” 3, emphasis in the original)