First Reading Response (Kleinman, Illness Narratives) – Iris Kang

  1. Kleinman’s Definition of “Illness”

As Kleinman states, illness refers to “the innately human experience of symptoms and suffering” (3). Examples of illness include the unique way in which an individual may cope after acquiring tinnitus, the family dynamic changes that occur due to a mother’s cancer diagnosis, or an athlete’s experienced impediment to success because of a torn ligament.

  1. “Sickness,” “Illness,” and “Disease”

It is important to distinguish from “sickness,” “illness,” and “disease” because of the different meanings that each term carries and how they aid in understanding different perspectives of a condition. As Kleinman states, the term “disease” is viewed “only as an alteration in biological structure or functioning” (5). He uses this argument to convey the notion that disease is a “hard” way of viewing a disorder. Meanwhile, illness provides an understanding of a condition that is “always distinctive” (Kleinman 5), one that biological aspects cannot capture. In doing so, Kleinman creates a stark contrast between the coldness of “disease” and the immediateness yet intangibleness of “illness.” Lastly, Kleinman distinguishes “sickness” as understanding “a disorder in its generic sense across a population in relation to macrosocial forces” (Kleinman 6). In this way, Kleinman argues that a more communal and mutual aspect of a disorder is possible. By distinguishing these terms, Kleinman enables us to grasp the far-reaching experiences and implications of disorders—from the strictly detached to the most intimate.

  1. The Meaning of “Materialist” in the Biological World

Kleinman refers to current medical training and healthcare as being engaged in a “radically materialist pursuit of the biological mechanism of disease” (9). He attempts to capture the “hardness” and narrow-focused view that results from viewing a condition as a “disease” rather than a more personal “illness” or societal “sickness.” Kleinman utilizes this metaphor to compare treating a disorder to achieving or gaining a “material,” ultimately leaving providers to fail at recognizing that rather than chasing more of an “item” (in this case a cure or explanation) they should seek to explore “the meanings of illness” (9) that transcend temporary success.

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