Transcending the dualisms: towards a sociology of pain



Theories of pain have traditionally been dominated by biomedicine and concentrate upon its neurophysiological aspects, both in diagnosis and treatment. Hence, scientific medicine reduces the experience of pain to an elaborate broadcasting system of signals, rather than seeing it as moulded and shaped both by the individual and their particular socio-cultural context. Although pain lies at the intersection between biology and culture, making it an obvious topic for sociological investigation, scant attention has been paid to understanding beliefs about pain within the study of health and illness. A major impediment to a more adequate conceptualisation of pain is due to the manner in which it has been ‘medicalised’, resulting in the inevitable Cartesian split between body and mind. Consequently, the dominant conceptualisation of pain has focused upon sensation, with the subsequent inference that it is able to be rationally and objectively measured. Yet as well as being a medical ‘problem’, pain is an everyday experience. Moreover, sociological and phenomenological approaches to pain would add to, and enhance, existing bodies of knowledge and help to reclaim pain from the dominant scientific paradigm. In this paper, it is argued, firstly, that the elevation of sensation over emotion within medico-psychological approaches to pain, can be shown to be limiting and reductionist. Secondly, we attempt to show how insights from the newly-emerging sociological arenas of emotions and embodiment provide a framework which is able to both transcend the divide between mind and body and to develop a phenomenological approach to pain. Finally, in order to bring the meaning of pain into fuller focus, we draw attention to the importance of studying theodices and narratives, as well as the cultural shaping and patterning of beliefs and responses to pain.