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Soc Sci Med. 1992 Jul;35(2):183-8.

From illness to symbol and symbol to illness.

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  • 1Department of Anthropology, University of Hawaii, Honolulu 96822.


This paper explores two aspects of the relationship between illness and social symbols: one in which illnesses become symbols; the other, in which symbols become implicated in processes that eventuate in illness. Illness is first discussed as a symbol of social beliefs, attitudes, norms, values, and other social phenomena conceptualized in relation to them. This symbolization is analyzed as it relates to various dimensions of illness that lend themselves to figurative thinking. The paper then turns to processes through which social symbols may generate illness. In this regard, ways in which social symbols may attract people to behavior that puts their health at risk are discussed. The paper concludes with an analysis of how the development of illness may be affected by the relationship between social symbols and somatization.

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