Illness narratives: fact or fiction?

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Abstract

There is currently considerable renewed interest in narrative analysis in the humanities, social sciences and medicine. Illness narratives, particularly those of patients or lay people, are a particular focus in health related settings. This paper discusses the background to this interest, especially its roots in critiques of medical dominance and distinctions between disease and illness, drawn by sociologists and anthropologists in the 1970s. The current emphasis on patient or personal narratives can also be seen to stem from changes in morbidity patterns, the expansion of information about disease and illness, and in public debates about the effectiveness of medicine. The paper then goes on to outline a framework for analysing illness narratives. This involves exploring three types of narrative form: ‘contingent narratives’ which address beliefs about the origins of disease, the proximate causes of an illness episode, and the immediate effects of illness on everyday life; ‘moral narratives’ that provide accounts of (and help to constitute) changes between the person, the illness and social identity, and which help to (re) establish the moral status of the individual or help maintain social distance; and ‘core narratives’ that reveal connections between the lay person’s experiences and deeper cultural levels of meaning attached to suffering and illness. Here, distinctions are drawn between such sub forms as heroic, tragic, ironic and comic, and regressive/progressive narratives. Finally, the paper discusses some of the methodological issues raised by narrative analysis. Given the complex character of illness narratives, their social and psychological functions, together with the motivational issues to which they relate, it is suggested that they constitute a major challenge for sociological analysis. From this viewpoint current claims about narrative analysis in medicine need to be treated with caution.

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