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Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 36, Issue 1, pp 102–123 | Cite as

“Sticky” Brains and Sticky Encounters in a U.S. Pediatric Pain Clinic

  • Mara BuchbinderEmail author
Article

Abstract

In the U.S. multidisciplinary pediatric pain clinic where I conducted 18 months of fieldwork, a widely held explanatory model tied the neurobiology of intractable pain to certain features of pervasive developmental disorders (PDD) such as concrete thinking, an interest in details, and hyper-attentiveness. Clinicians used terms such as “sticky brains” and “sticky neurons” to describe the perseverative thoughts and quirky behavior that characterized a sizable subset of the program’s chronic pain patients who were believed to show signs of PDD, and consequently, did not respond well to treatment. Drawing on observations of clinical consultations, team meetings, and interviews with clinicians and families, I examine the meta-discursive processes by which clinical difficulties were inscribed onto difficult patients. Specifically, I demonstrate how discourse on sticky brains worked to re-classify challenging patients as psychologically abnormal, rationalizing their failed response to standard treatment. I argue that ‘stickiness’ provides an appropriate metaphor not only for a particular neurobiological configuration, but also for challenging clinical encounters. By illuminating the interactional processes through which clinical difficulties are managed, interpreted, and explained, the paper advances anthropological theorizing on the performative work of diagnosis and institutionalized misrecognition.

Keywords

Clinical ethnography Chronic pain Autism spectrum disorders Diagnosis “Difficult” patients 

Notes

Acknowledgments

The research for this paper was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. Mei Zhan provided useful comments on an earlier version of this paper at a workshop at the University of California, Irvine. I am also grateful to Linda Garro, Doug Hollan, Keith Murphy, Elinor Ochs, Merav Shohet, Jesse Summers, Jason Throop, and an anonymous reviewer for offering helpful feedback.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Social MedicineUniversity of North Carolina, Chapel HillChapel HillUSA

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