Embodied risk: My body, myself?

  • Kavanagh A
  • Broom D
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Risk has become a dominant way to interpret who gets sick and why. A distinction has been drawn between two categories of risk: those arising from the environment, and those resulting from an individual's lifestyle. We identify a third category that might be called corporeal or embodied risk which has received little scholarly attention. Embodied risks are so called because they are located in the body of the person said to be 'at risk'. Environmental risks are due to something that happens to a person; lifestyle risks occur because of something a person does or does not do, while embodied risks say something about who the person is. To investigate how people experience health risks - especially risks identified as characteristics of their bodies - we conducted detailed interviews with 29 women who were told they had an abnormal Pap smear. All health risks pose problems for people who are diagnosed as 'at risk': They must translate probabilistic statements about populations into terms that have personal meaning; they must cope with uncertainty; they must consider what it means to be in danger of developing an illness even though most have no symptoms; and they must mobilise appropriate surveillance and perhaps risk reduction. However, limiting attention to environmental and lifestyle risk (and the distinction between them) neglects the additional challenges posed by corporeal risks: the simultaneous presence of disease now and the possibility of more consequential disease in the future; the necessity to submit to ongoing medical surveillance; a tendency to exacerbate the cartesian split between body and self; and the absence of medical or popular discourses through which to interpret and respond to embodied risk. We call upon medicine and public health practitioners to work together with people who are at risk to formulate languages and approaches that can reflect both scientific accuracy (as it is currently understood), and the needs of people to integrate health threats into their daily personal lives.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Abnormal Pap smear
  • Corporeal risk
  • Qualitative study

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