Teaching and Learning Guide for: A Sociological Alternative to the Psychiatric Conceptualization of Mental Suffering



This article corrects:

  1. A Sociological Alternative to the Psychiatric Conceptualization of Mental Suffering Volume 5, Issue 5, 351–363, Article first published online: 2 May 2011


This guide accompanies the following article: Dena T. Smith, ‘A Sociological Alternative to the Psychiatric Conceptualization of Mental Suffering’, Sociology Compass 5/5 (2011): 351–363, [DOI]. 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2011.00369.x.

Author’s introduction

This article provides an introduction to the utility of sociology for studying suffering, particularly mental suffering. Further, this paper highlights the differences between the sociological and psychiatric approaches to understanding mental illness and mental suffering. The study of suffering is a longstanding tradition in sociology; Macro sociological studies focus on the likelihood to suffer under certain social conditions, while the micro-level approach attends to definitions, and experiences of suffering. It is the ability to study both the macro and micro that make sociology so well-equipped to address the complex concept of suffering. In short, this paper highlights the importance of a multidimensional perspective on suffering. As an example of the crucial role for sociologists in fully explicating suffering, I describe the narrow conceptualization of mental suffering (as mental illness) in contemporary psychiatry. While mental illness refers to specific symptom sets as defined by The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), mental suffering is something much more general and elusive to define and needs an explanation that extends beyond illness. This article provides: a broad overview of sociological understandings of suffering, a brief survey of sociological explanations of mental illness and mental suffering, and an exploration of biological psychiatry’s approach to understanding mental strife.

Author recommends

  • Horwitz, Allan 2002. Creating Mental Illness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Cassell, Eric J. 2004. The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Conrad, Peter 1992. ‘Medicalization and Social Control.’Annual Review of Sociology 18: 209–32.
  • Kleinman, Arthur, Veena Das and Margaret Lock 1997. Social Suffering. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • DeGloma, Thomas 2009. ‘Expanding Trauma through Space and Time: Mapping the Rhetorical Strategies of Trauma Carrier Groups.’Social Psychology Quarterly 72: 105–21.
  • Wilkinson, Iain 2005. Suffering: A Sociological Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Online materials

Focus questions

  • What is the difference between a macro and micro approach to studying mental suffering? What does each approach offer?
  • What is the psychiatric notion of mental illness and suffering? How does it differ from a sociological understanding?
  • Why would a multidimensional analysis of mental suffering add to understanding mental illness and suffering? Why is sociology so useful in this endeavour?

Seminar/Project idea

Students identify one kind of mental suffering (specific mental illnesses such as depression or bipolar disorder would be one option) and write a paper on how a multidimensional analysis would be beneficial in order to fully understand their chosen issue. In other words, students would investigate the dominant, biological conceptualization, and then describe what sociological analysis already exists, and how the sociological imagination might more fully address the chosen form of suffering. An option would also be to have students present their case to the class.