Towards an anthropology of medically unexplained symptoms 
Simon Cohn (London School of Hygiene Tropical Medicine)
Mette Bech Risør (University of Tromsø)
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Royal Fort Drawing
Start time:
20 September, 2006 at 11:30 (UTC+0)
Session slots:

Short Abstract:

Medically unexplained symptoms provide unique insight into how culture is embodied, and how distress is expressed. This leads to discussions of the process of suffering and the quest for meaning in the context of everyday lives of somatising patients.

Long Abstract

Medically unexplained symptoms, somatisation or functional disorders are different descriptive terms of a common human condition of suffering known in biomedicine as: conditions where a patient complains of physical symptoms that cause excessive worry or discomfort or lead the patient to seek treatment but for which no adequate organ pathology or patho-physiological basis can be found. The condition has been known throughout history with different names and diagnoses but captures renewed attention today because of its increase in prevalence. The phenomenon and the specific illness condition as such appeal strongly to more than just biomedical scrutiny. Psychologists, sociologists and medical anthropologists have contributed to analyses of different aspects of somatisation. In this workshop we would like to focus on different anthropological aspects of somatisation, both empirical and theoretical, emphasising elements of process and change. Cultural norms and illness perceptions are raised showing important social constructions of identity and normality. Explanatory models and diagnoses influence the social construction of identity, sick role and illness behaviour in the interaction between health professionals and patients. Furthermore, somatisation points to basic cultural representations of the mind-body dualism and its relation to persistent risks of stigma. Sick absence and change in work situations change and create new social relations and strategies. Managing unexplained conditions and uncertainty might call for meaning, eg through enhanced religious activity, spiritual healing or other complementary therapies. Overall the workshop seeks to invoke anthropological research in general, addressing the above-mentioned approaches or others within the frames of process, change and continuity. From this starting point we wish to creatively discuss and develop analytical and theoretical core issues in relation to medically unexplained symptoms.

Accepted papers: