I’d like to share with you few things from a book in French I’ve read recently. The authors are Claudine Herzlich and Philippe Adam and the book’s name is Sociologie de la maladie et de la médecine, Armand Colin, 2007.
In the book the chapter which is about cultural and social interpretations of health and illness took my interest the most. It says basically that our cultural code influence our response to illnesses and pain. The first researches made on this topic were from Mark Zborowski in the late 50’s. He studied three ethnical groups in the United States on the experience of pain: Jewish Americans, Italian Americans and protestant Americans who were settled in the US for a long time. Jew and Italian Americans reacted to pain very emotionally whereas native born protestant Americans were more tend to minimize the pain than the others. Zborowski analized significance related to the pain in these different groups. For exemple, experience of pain for Italians had especially an immediate meaning, their complaints were very strong but as soon as the pain went off they too appeased and this left very little memory on this people. On the other hand, the preoccupations of Jewish Americans were more concerned for long term consequences of the pain. Their anxiety was directed towards future and it didn’t get erased when the pain disappeared. When it comes to protestant Americans, their worry was centered on the future and their attitude was very pragmatical: They accepted hospitilization better than the members of the other two groups and believed they should cooperate with the staff.
A research made by Irving Zola too has shown that different ethnical groups in the United States described the same illness’ symptoms in different ways. Zola studied Italian Americans and Irish Americans. According to this study, Irish indicated precise localizations for their symptoms, described a limited dysfunction and could minimize the suffering. Italians were plaintive of more symptoms and these were more vague; they emphasized the pain they felt and stressed out that their mood and relationship with others are perturbed. Thus, for example, for the same visual trouble, an Irish American would answer to the question “what do you suffer from?” as “I can’t see to thread a needle nor can I read a newspaper” while an Italian would say: “I have a perpetual headache, eyes which shed tears and become red”.
After reading this I’ve thought of my own responses to symptoms. I’ve realised that I’ve got a headache when I sit or stay in the middle of drafts. (Actually one of the words we use in Turkish for draft is “courant d’air” which is the same word in French). It’s quite common between women in Istanbul here that we should protect ourselves from it. I remember my mother always warned us to keep away from drafts or it would cause many disturbances. At those times when I was a teenager -or even later- that didn’t make much sense to me. I think we didn’t know how to listen to our bodies at that age or understand its signals. I don’t know if this requires some wisdom but in my experience this came with the age. This is one of the many factors I like about aging! And if you ask me how do I respond to a headache, to be honest I feel pretty hopeless about the situation and I take a pain killer (I would prefer to take a homeopathic medicine but until now in Istanbul, I’ve heard of two people who practice this as a doctor and they are really expensive!) and try to disappear from the world and everyone. I didn’t read any studies on how Turks respond to pain but I believe the differences in one’s character too play an important role on our approach to illnesses. Well, I guess, best of all is to avoid the pain comes in the first hand and take the necessary preventions by being aware of our bodies’ signals and be friend with them so that they don’t make fool of us...
 M. Zborowski, “Cultural Components in Responses to Pain”, Journal of Social Issues, 1952, no 8, pp. 16-30.
 I.K. Zola, “Culture and Symptoms. An Analysis of Patients’ Presenting Complaints”. American Sociological Review, 1966, vol. XXXI, pp. 615-630.
George Cruikshank, published by G. Humphrey, 27 St. James's St., February 12, 1819. George Cruikshank satirizes the abuse that women experienced by being held hostage to the fashions of the day in this entertaining print entitled, “The Cholic.” Colic is a medical term for severe abdominal pain, represented in the caricature by the tightening of a rope around the woman's waist. The irony is that her agony is self-imposed and not caused by a preexisting medical condition. The woman is a victim to the popular practice of wearing tight-laced corsets.
(picture taken from http://www.hsl.virginia.edu/historical/artifacts/caricatures/en6-fashion.cfm)