Culture and somatic experience: The social course of illness in neurasthenia and chronic fatigue syndrome

  • Ware N
  • Kleinman A
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An anthropological view of culture and somatic experience is presented through elaboration of the notion that illness has a social course. Contemporary anthropology locates culture in local worlds of interpersonal experience. The flow of events and processes in these local worlds influences the waxing and waning of symptoms in a dialetic involving body and society over time. Conversely, symptoms serve as a medium for the negotiation of interpersonal experience, forming a series of illness-related changes in sufferers' local worlds. Thus, somatic experience is both created by and creates culture throughout the social course of illness. Findings from empirical research on neurasthenia in China, and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) in the United States, corroborate this formulation. Attributions of illness onset to social sources, the symbolic linking of symptoms to life context, and the alleviation of distress with improvement in circumstances point to the sociosomatic mediation of sickness. Transformations occasioned by illness in the lives of neurasthenic and CFS patients confirm the significance of bodily distress as a vehicle for the negotiation of change in interpersonal worlds. An indication of some of the challenges anthropological thinking poses for psychosomatic medicine concludes the discussion.

Author-supplied keywords

  • anthropology
  • chronic fatigue syndrome
  • culture
  • neurasthenia
  • social course of illness

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  • N. C. Ware

  • A. Kleinman

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