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Paige Hadisty is from Kenya and has a bachelor of social science in sociology and psychology. Paige is currently pursuing her postgraduate honours degree in general Sociology at Rhodes University, South Africa.
Ivan Illich (1976) looks at the complex concept of pain. He boldly stated that “medical civilization (western medicine) tends to turn pain into a technical matter and thereby deprives suffering of its inherent personal meaning” (Illich, 1976). This essay will look at the various ways in which his argument agrees with this statement. Pain is viewed in different ways amongst various cultures. By looking at the history of pain and the beliefs that are held about the complex notion of pain, we can look at the extent to which western medicine has detached pain from its personal meaning.
One of Illich’s main points in the reading ‘The Killing of Pain’ (1976) suggests that the concept of pain is extremely cultural, social and political. In different cultures, the way in which a person can express pain varies. For example, in some traditional cultures, women are not allowed to show any sort of pain as it will have an effect on the baby. In western cultures this may be seen as arguably irrational. However, in westernised cultures, pain has become an extremely medicalized concept, whereby, the actual personal suffering of pain is detached. We now live in a society based on pain-killers, drugs, anaesthetics and sedatives. Pain is viewed as a detriment to the economic system and must be removed of immediately so as to revert back to normal functioning in society. Pain is viewed as a ‘systemic reaction that can be verified, measured and regulated’ (Illich, 1976:134). This statement clearly demonstrates how there is little focus on the actual suffering of pain but rather an immediate focus on the removal of pain so as one can revert to a ‘normal’ state (Blaxter, 2010). Hence, society’s increasing demand of pain killers and other such drugs.
Pain is no longer a personal encounter. Illich (1976), points out pains individualistic status. Everyone suffers from their own kind of pain. It is very difficult for anyone other than oneself to fully understand and know the suffering that is being experienced. Illich views pain as a state of ‘utter loneliness’ (Illich, 1976:137). Others may feel compassion and sympathy towards a person in pain, but the extent to which another is able to comprehend this is almost impossible.
One of the main reasons that understanding of another’s pain is so problematic is because of language, or lack thereof. There is no one term that can be used to describe pain. In English, pain may constitute an emotional pain such as ‘grief’ or a physical pain such as ‘aching’. Thus, the term pain is used in many different contexts. The thin stretched use of this word has made the term lose a lot of its personal meaning. This problem is not only found in English, but dates back to Greek history when even then, pain was a difficult term to comprehend when trying to understand what another person may be suffering from (Illich, 1976:144). Thus, pain is intrinsic and often incommunicable (Illich, 1976:138).
Westernised medicine has acknowledged the lack of control that society has over pain and the ways in which it is problematic. However, rather than westernised medicine focusing on trying to gain a better meaning on what the term actually constitutes, medicine simply looks to remove the pain rather than looking at its primary causes and impacts on the person. There are many questions raised when it comes to pain such as how? Why? Should I? These are all questions that are out of a medical practitioner’s control. Western medicine has been developed on an experimental basis. Scientists have used animals to try new medicines and measure its success rate of treatment. Practitioners do not look into the extent of pain that the animal may be suffering, but rather, they consider pain to be a symptom of the root problem. The personal suffering does not come into account during experimentation and so personal questions that are raised cannot be answered. The lack of connection between an individual’s personal suffering experiences and the treatment of the problem barely exists in modern medicine. The inability that a practitioner has to answer such personal questions has led to the reduction of meaning held to the suffering of pain. Pain is no longer viewed as a sometimes unbearable experience, but rather to a ‘bodily discomfort, with a clinical name’ (Illich, 1976).
One of the ways in which Illich looked at the understanding of pain in westernized medicine was by comparing it to the understandings of pain in other cultures. History shows that different cultures believe pain to be modelled in different ways; a sufferer might be seen as a warrior or a Buddha, a saint or a victim (Illich, 1976:142). The labels that have been attached to pain have become a way in which people can manage pain. The stereotypical views attached to each label suggest the ways in which society has tried to gain some control over the comprehension of pain. The Chinese culture was used as an example in the reading ‘The Killing of Pain’ (Illich, 1976) to demonstrate the different approaches towards pain in comparison to that of westernised medicine. In traditional Chinese culture, the experience of pain is focused on a fairly personal level. They focus on treating sickness through the removal of pain. This clearly suggests the way in which pain in Chinese culture is considered and concentrated to be a personal experience whereby, it is important to understand it rather than reduce and remove it. Once the pain is treated, the illness will fade.
This is an extremely different approach to pain when comparing the Chinese approach to that of the Western approach. The main focus of temporary medicine is to remove the pain immediately rather than healing the pain on a more personal level. Doctors will immediately use drugs to enhance the removal at a heightened speed. The practitioner doesn’t look to try and understand questions raised by the patient such as why they may be feeling this way but rather, the practitioner simply views pain as a mere symptom of a list of other symptoms that would compile the illness.
In conclusion, we can see the ways in which, over time, contemporary medicine has evolved away from focusing on pain as a personal, confused type of loneliness to an immediate problem contributing to an illness. Western societies have reduced the personal sufferings to a simple ‘bodily discomfort with a clinical name’ (Illich, 1976:140). Thus I think that Illich’s statement that ‘medical civilization (western medicine) tends to turn pain into a technical matter and thereby deprives suffering of its inherent personal meaning’ (Illich, 1976) can strongly be supported by several modern examples of the way in which modern society deals with pain on such a depersonalized level. The important aspects of pain, have thus evolved, arguably for the worst, in today’s western society.
Ivan Illich, 1976, “The Killing of Pain” in Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health, Patheon Books, New York.
Mildred Blaxter, 2010, “Health” in How is Health Defined? Polity Press, Cambridge, UK