Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry

, Volume 5, Issue 1, pp 25–47

The meaning of nervios: A sociocultural analysis of symptom presentation in San Jose, Costa Rica

  • Setha M. Low

DOI: 10.1007/BF00049157

Cite this article as:
Low, S.M. Cult Med Psych (1981) 5: 25. doi:10.1007/BF00049157


The foundation of the symbolic tradition in medical anthropology is the examination of a patient's experience of a category of illness. The interpretation of folk explanations of etiology and nosology provides insight into the cultural definition of what constitutes an illness, how and why an illness is labeled, and how the afflicted individual should be treated. Further, the analysis of sociocultural meaning emerges as a critical theoretical contribution to our understanding of health and culture.

Allen Young in his article “Some Implications of Medical Beliefs and Practices for Social Anthropology” suggests “... that if we want to learn the social meaning of sickness, we must understand that ‘signs,’ whatever their genesis, become ‘symptoms’ because they are expressed, elicited, and perceived in socially acquired ways” (1976: 14). He further states that some categories of sickness are particularly interesting in that they enable people to organize the illness event into an episode that has form and meaning (1976: 19–20).

Nervios is an example of a symptom that has acquired a special sociocultural pattern of expression, elicitation and perception in San José, Costa Rica. The empirical study of symptom presentation in general medicine and psychiatric outpatient clinics describes the patients who present the symptom and their associated attributes and explanations of the symptom's occurrence. The meaning of nervios is then discussed within a social interactional and symbolic framework.

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Co 1981

Authors and Affiliations

  • Setha M. Low
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, Graduate School of Fine ArtsUniversity of PennsylvanniaPhiladelphia

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