Utilizing his knowledge as both a psychiatrist and anthropologist, Arthur Kleinman details distinct definitions for the following terms: “illness”, “disease” and “sickness”. These definitions are specific yet overlapping at the same time. “Illness” involves the unique and personal experience of an individual suffering. An example of “illness” as the subjective lived experience of a disorder include the incomprehensible pain of losing an arm and being unable to express oneself through art ever again. Kleiman states that, “Illness problems are the principal difficulties that symptoms and disability create in our lives”. He continues by giving a multitude of examples, “We may become demoralized and lose our hope of getting better, or we may be depressed by our fear of death, or of becoming an invalid. We grieve over lost health, altered body image, and dangerously declining self-esteem” (4). Kleiman’s examples involve the non-standardized aspects of a disorder that are rarely addressed publicly. I find it interesting that as Kleinman lists these examples, he uses the plural pronoun “we”, including both himself and the reader. I think his intentions for doing this were to emphasize that illness problems are experienced by all yet no one experiences them in the same way.
The distinct definitions between, “illness”, “disease” and “sickness” are important because recognizing these differences allows us to better understand the meanings behind disorders both in our own culture and cross-culturally. Furthermore, it enables us to better address and relieve suffering. By confining the term “disease” to biomedical usage and using “illness” to address the condition holistically, instead of the two synonymously, empowers the individual suffering. Kleiman refers to disease as “radically materialist” meaning that it focuses solely on the testable and irrefutable science of a pathogen. As Kleinman specifies later in the chapter, he says that disease refers to the “technical quest for the control of symptoms” (9). Using this specific language, Kleiman gives a narrow definition to disease.
Kleinman, Arthur. The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, and the Human
Condition. Basic Books, Inc, 1998.