Photo: Shadows from Michael Dunne Flickr Photostream

A symposium on ‘The Meanings of Recovery’ was recently held at the University of Surrey. Speakers from a range of disciplines and professional backgrounds came together to discuss the ways that recovery has been conceptualised by different groups across various fields of study, like mental health, physical illness and injury, and addiction, among others. A range of common themes emerged from the symposium that has pointed the way for future directions for research in this understudied area.

Mental health is an area of study that has perhaps given the most attention to the concept of recovery. Much of this attention has focussed on frustrations at the way that recovery is conceptualised within policy documents. Criticisms of recovery in a mental health context were concerned with the ways in which clinical recovery guidelines and goals were described as being increasingly subject to procedural constraints surrounding risk and safety. There was also a move towards short-term interventions based on outcomes that often did not reflect the needs, (often long term needs) of service users. This highlighted the tension between recovery as an outcome of clinical practice versus recovery as an experience of illness or emotional distress. This raised the importance of exploring these tensions regarding sets of spaces where practitioners and service users can balance an understanding of recovery between policy and the more personal, experience-based understandings of what recovery might mean. It also pointed to a need for a more flexible or open definition of recovery, or even the possibility of a new term or set of terms to reflect the different contextual settings where ‘recovery’ is used.

A dominant and recurring theme of the symposium was the broader socio-economic and political framework within which recovery is taking place. Discussion considered the work that ‘recovery’ could be seen to be doing within the context of an increasingly neoliberal political framework. In this context, recovery works to delimit access to healthcare. The institutional status of ‘the recovered’ becomes conceptualised as being someone who no longer requires (or who is no longer eligible for) the use of the service; or as being confirmed as a contributing citizen in the very narrow terms of returning to paid employment, such that return to work = recovery.

This focus on outcomes was at odds with experiences of recovery by people facing physical illness. There was discussion around a resilient normative context for recovery, with empowered groups asserting their own ideas of normality onto those experiencing recovery, in ways that could be seen to deny alternative view of what they would want their recovery or ‘unrecovery’ to involve. Top-down models of recovery, drawing from outcomes frameworks, could be seen to reflect dominant austerity and scarcity agendas. These agenda’s privileged definitions of recovery were individualised, and individualistic, goal oriented, and limited in scope. By contrast, experiences of recovery were found throughout the conference to involve a multitude of dimensions that were much more often mundane and taken for granted. Recovery might better be understood as something which is co-produced and shared across social networks, among and between family members and other agents. It also has a ‘long shadow’, recovery can be prolonged and changeable over time as new adjustments and realisations are made and discovered, in ways far beyond the scope of outcomes based policy frameworks and even medical conceptions of recovery.

Regarding trying to move beyond this impasse, the discussion turned to the usefulness of recovery as a concept, and in turn, to defining, or re-defining so that it might be sociologically useful. This question led the debate around how best to explore inequalities in recovery. The limited anecdotal evidence of inequalities in recovery presented at the symposium suggests that there can be substantial variation in recovery experiences and outcomes across different social groups.

The symposium ended on a high with plans to establish a group or network to develop research in this area. Any further developments in this area will be announced in the comments section below if you are interested in finding out more. Further details about the invited speakers and their presentation topics can also be found here. The symposium was jointly funded by the Foundation for the Sociology of Health and Illness and the University of Surrey.

Lastly, I invite others to comment below to add to my non-exhaustive summary of the event to highlight areas I may have neglected and add to the debate and discussion in this growing sub-field of study.

About the Author: Richard Green is an ESRC funded sociology PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London with joint supervision at the University of Surrey. You can find out more about his research here: He also tweets @Simmelar.