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The conceptualization of meaning in illness


  • Fife, Betsy L.


The focus of this paper is the development of a conceptualization of meaning within the context of serious illness. It is based on a symbolic interactionist perspective, with the significance of the concept of meaning for the process of adaptation being a primary point of discussion. Meaning, as it is defined here, refers to the perceived nature of the relationship between the individual and his/her world that is developed within the context of specific events. It is comprised of two inextricably linked dimensions: meaning that pertains to one's identity and how that is affected by the event of the illness, and meaning which pertains to perceived characteristics of the event and to the social circumstances that surround it. Interviews with 38 persons living with the stress of cancer provide qualitative data that illustrate the concept as it is set forth in this paper. Four specific domains relevant to symbolic interactionism were explored in these interviews: (1) the individual's response to the illness; (2) changes that occurred relative to identify as a consequence of the illness; (3) the impact of cancer on the individual's relationship to the social world; (4) anticipated effects of the illness on the individual's future. Clinical implications of specific aspects of meaning are discussed.

Suggested Citation

  • Fife, Betsy L., 1994. "The conceptualization of meaning in illness," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 38(2), pages 309-316, January.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:38:y:1994:i:2:p:309-316

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Halkos, George, 1993. "Economic incentives for optimal sulphur abatement in Europe," MPRA Paper 33705, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    2. Ger Klaassen & David Pearce, 1995. "Introduction," Environmental & Resource Economics, Springer;European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 5(2), pages 85-93, March.
    3. Michael Grossman, 1972. "The Demand for Health: A Theoretical and Empirical Investigation," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number gros72-1, January.
    4. Tietenberg, T H, 1990. "Economic Instruments for Environmental Regulation," Oxford Review of Economic Policy, Oxford University Press, vol. 6(1), pages 17-33, Spring.
    5. Halkos, George E., 1993. "Sulphur abatement policy: Implications of cost differentials," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 21(10), pages 1035-1043, October.
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    Cited by:

    1. Koffman, Jonathan & Morgan, Myfanwy & Edmonds, Polly & Speck, Peter & Higginson, Irene J., 2008. ""I know he controls cancer": The meanings of religion among Black Caribbean and White British patients with advanced cancer," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 67(5), pages 780-789, September.
    2. Fife, Betsy L., 2005. "The role of constructed meaning in adaptation to the onset of life-threatening illness," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 61(10), pages 2132-2143, November.
    3. Malpass, Alice & Shaw, Alison & Sharp, Debbie & Walter, Fiona & Feder, Gene & Ridd, Matthew & Kessler, David, 2009. ""Medication career" or "Moral career"? The two sides of managing antidepressants: A meta-ethnography of patients' experience of antidepressants," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 68(1), pages 154-168, January.


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