Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry

, Volume 15, Issue 1, pp 19–43 | Cite as

The semantics of pain in Indian culture and medicine

  • Judy F. Pugh


An interpretive perspective offers a counterpoint to the behavioral orientation in the social scientific literature on pain. The present paper develops a meaning-centered approach which focuses on three interconnected aspects of the experience of suffering: (l) the cultural construction of pain sensation; (2) the semiotics of pain expression; (3) the structure of pain's causes and cures. These connections are explored through a variety of linguistic and semiotic forms, including metaphors, etymologies, gestural codes, taxonomies, and semantic networks. The study of metaphor has special value in revealing the cultural construction of pain, especially its sensory qualities, such as temperature, weight, and movement. The concept of semantic network provides a complementary tool for understanding pain experience; the analysis makes pain sensation the center of the network and argues that multiple meanings attach to this sensory core.

The paper examines these perspectives in the context of North Indian culture and medicine, specifically Unani Tibb, or Greco-Arab medicine. Pursuing questions of the “fit” between everyday belief and traditional medicine, the essay traces continuities in the “language of pain” in North Indian culture, classical Unani Tibb, and contemporary Unani clinical practice.[/ p]


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • Judy F. Pugh
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyMichigan State UniversityEast LansingU.S.A.

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