The Meaning of Illness: Narrative Approaches

Monday, 11 July 2016: 09:15
Location: Hörsaal 32 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Bruce COHEN, Sociology, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand
Narrative scholars of health argue that we give meaning to our behaviour through the stories we tell about ourselves (Gergen 1994; Kleinman 1988). When we experience serious illness such as cancer or schizophrenia, for example, we attempt to make sense of it in personal terms rather than through grand theories offered by medicine. Likewise, our road to recovery from illness will involve a compromise or resolution of such understandings at the personal level. This approach is in stark contrast to the dominant biomedical view of mental disorder where illness is considered as pathology; that is, an irrationality or deviation from the ‘normal’ state of the body and mind, one in which the individual is isolated and alienated from the process of medical intervention and recovery.  

This presentation draws on the emerging academic literature that has given primacy and validity to biographies of mental illness and recovery (Brown 2008; Carless and Douglas 2008; Foster 2007; Ridge 2009) including my own research with mental health users in the UK (Cohen 2008). These studies demonstrate that the illness process is fundamentally ‘storied’; it is understood in terms of a wider biography that includes social, economic and cultural frames of reference. For example, it will be highlighted that user narratives typically involve points of perceived failure and crisis (such as the loss of the job, a divorce, or a breakdown in social relations due to alcohol use) as well as positive life events and successes (such as the birth of a child, completion of a college qualification, or taking leadership of a prayer group). With the recent release of the revised edition of Mental Health User Narratives (Cohen 2015), time will be given to consider the advantageous position of sociologists in undertaking narrative research in this area.