Professor M. Rivkin-Fish and J. Thrailkill
ANTH 272/ENGL 264
26 January 2020
Arthur Kleinman: The Meaning of Symptoms and Disorders
Arthur Kleinman attempts to distinguish the different meanings of symptoms and disorders as a way to expose the impersonal approach of healing by practitioners. His main distinction is between the subjective experience of “illness”, which “refers to how the sick person and the members of the family or wider social network perceive, live with, and respond to symptoms and disability.” (Kleinman 3), and “disease”, which “is the problem from the practitioner’s perspective.” (Kleinman 6). The latter can be described as the purely biological deviation from “normalcy” that healers, in their many cross-cultural forms and practices, attempt to remedy. This view taken by healers can be seen as problematic. Kleinman states, “Illness problems are the principal difficulties that symptoms and disability create in our lives.” (Kleinman 4). Examples include the frustration involved with not being able to walk up the stairs, or the failure from the inability to focus on homework with pestering chronic aches and pains, or the anger in feeling that no one else knows the pain one feels. No two experiences of illness are the equivalent in the same way no two humans are equivalent in terms of biology and experience. The problem Kleinman seems to be highlighting is the accidental ignorance regarding the unique experience of “illness” from person to person. A practitioner might view multiple cases of epilepsy the same way or from the same lens without taking into account how the patient is actually experiencing the disorder. With the awareness of individuality regarding “illness”, healers could more appropriately interact with patients, attempt to understand their disorder in a more holistic sense, and provide better patient care altogether. Awareness of the fact could also sooth the patient when feelings of not being understood arise. Kleinman provides a valuable insight into the healer-patient relationship and possible ways to improve suffering by making this distinction and highlighting the subjective experience of “illness”.
Arthur Kleinman, Ch 1 “The Personal and Social Meanings of Illness,” in The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Meaning, and the Human Condition (Basic Books, 1988), 31-55.