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Journal Article


Leavitt SC. Anthropol. Humanism. 1995; 20(2): 133-152.


(Copyright © 1995, Society for Humanistic Anthropology and the American Anthropological Association, Publisher John Wiley and Sons)






There is a commonsense notion that prolonged suffering--whether from pain, illness, or loss--can change people by compelling them to see themselves and their world in a new, deeper way. They may seek solace and understanding by turning to culturally framed moral, religious, or medical explanations, but the suffering itself, by shattering complacency and undermining a sense of well-being, drives them to new views of self and place. Anthropologists have drawn upon the transformative potential of suffering to refine their ideas about how culture articulates with personal experience. One aim has been to show that people deal with suffering by building "illness narratives" out of meanings supplied by their cultural repertoire (Kleinman 1988). By making suffering meaningful, people are able to live with it. In this paper, I use case material from a Bumbita Arapesh man (Papua New Guinea) to suggest that while it is important to recognize the ultimate cultural basis of healing, it is equally important to attend to the rhetorical process underlying the construction of an illness narrative. I argue that building a personal narrative is both a psychological and a political activity, one that draws on deep motives as well as pragmatic interests. Because so much is at stake in building a successful narrative, the rhetorical process involves suppressing some meanings even while deploying others. In what follows, I outline a strategy for interpreting narratives that focuses on the point of tension between these expressed and suppressed meanings.

Language: en


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