This is a very engaging and informative book that will interest scholars but should also appeal to a much wider audience. Like the author I must declare a personal interest; although I am right-handed many of my closest relatives are not. Themes from the book provided many talking points over the holidays and the author’s insights and conclusions resonate strongly with my experiences of living with people who not only are left-handed but also regard left-handedness as an important part of their personal and family identity. This is perhaps why I notice which hands people favour, and as a result am constantly surprised by how many left-handers I encounter. While Kushner (Chapter 3) provides a very authoritative account of assessments of the incidence of left-handedness in various places at different times, I share his scepticism about the results given the likelihood of under-reporting. Cultural preferences certainly seem to explain significant statistical differences between different countries and continents with many past and present left-handers forced to switch hands with serious consequences for their mental health and functional skills. Kushner explores these issues with great skill and sensitivity, making complex literature debates accessible while providing consistently strong arguments for acceptance and flexibility. I was intrigued by his thesis that ‘societies and cultures that discriminate against left-handers are also less tolerant of other forms of diversity’ (p. xiii). Yet even under the most benign conditions, where my left-handed nephew received nothing but support from his left-handed infant school teacher, his left-handedness not only placed him in a potentially discriminated against minority group but created a number of obstacles to full integration in a classroom apparently equipped by and for right-handers. Kushner perhaps tends to downplay the day-to-day difficulties experienced by left-handers in a right-handed world, although I found his thesis ‘that the damage produced by discrimination against left-handers is much greater than the putative pathology resulting from left-handedness’ (p.xiii) well argued. I certainly appreciated the way the author consistently used a historical perspective to provide a ‘crucial context for current controversies’ (p.xiii). The use of personal anecdotes and reminiscences adds incredible richness to Kushner’s text and encourages reflection by the reader. My grandfather was one of the fortunate few who, despite enduring forced switching at his interwar schools, managed to develop beautiful handwriting when using his preferred left hand, but then lost a finger in an industrial accident using a machine perhaps better adapted to the needs of right-handers. Kushner, not unsurprisingly, concludes that nineteenth-century industrial and educational developments made left-handedness more visible and problematic, and thus a target for twentieth-century interventions. Unfortunately the study offers little additional analysis on these points. I think this was a missed opportunity as there is value in reading this book alongside the expanding historiography exploring the aims and impact of educational and industrial psychology, the work study movement and the activities of military psychologists and psychiatrists in the UK as well as the USA. While Kushner is very interested in both the causes and consequences of left-handedness I think there is a definite bias in the study towards the former. This ultimately proved somewhat frustrating because, despite the author’s careful engagement with scientific studies of the left-handed brain and various forms of neuropathology, these offered no definitive conclusions so, having started an important journey with Kushner, the reader is left with a series of unsatisfactory dead-ends where apparently plausible explanations have to be discounted and ‘the mysteries of handedness’ (p.154) become ever more elusive. Kushner readily, and warmly, acknowledges these difficulties and largely overcomes them by focusing on the importance of questions raised by the issue of handedness in the scientific literature and wider cultural studies. Some of the themes surrounding mental illness and social deviancy are very dark despite the sensitivity shown by Kushner. The author usefully considers the hypothesis that the history of left-handedness parallels that of disabilities, and also explores why historically left-handed individuals were sometimes regarded as disabled. Drawing on his long-standing research interests, Kushner pays particular attention to the incidence of non-right-handedness amongst patients diagnosed with specific syndromes associated with moderate and severe learning disabilities. Thinking about both the recent and historic studies, so vividly brought to life by Kushner, I am surprised that my own work on interwar records relating to a large UK mental deficiency institution revealed no discussion of handedness. Kushner certainly makes the case for more research, and not just into the aetiology of handedness and the ‘many genetic and environmental hypotheses that purported to explain why most humans relied on their right hand’ (p.1). © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Social History of Medicine. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Social History of Medicine – Oxford University Press
Published: Aug 1, 2018
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