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"Does it mean I'm gonna die?": On meaning assessment in the delivery of diagnostic news


  • Maynard, Douglas W.


This paper investigates how, in the delivery of diagnostic news, participants to the delivery may engage in meaning assessment or interpreting the news. It draws on data from 24 conversations in developmental disabilities clinics, internal medicine clinics and HIV counselling and testing clinics in the USA. The analysis shows that participants initiate meaning assessment sequences whereby one participant proposes what the news means and the other aligns or disaligns with the proposal. When meaning assessment occurs, the preferred way for this to happen is that the clinician initiates and proposes an interpretation. Following the interpretive proposal, a patient or family member aligns or disaligns with the interpretation, with alignment being sought over disalignment. Further practices of meaning assessment are "affirming the positive" and "disconfirming the negative," which work to provide relatively benign interpretations of news. Analysis of a collection of meaning assessment sequences in clinical settings is brought to bear on a single case in which an internist tells a patient that he has stomach cancer. After delivering the diagnosis, this doctor neither affirms the positive nor disconfirms the negative, and the patient ends up asking, "Does it mean I'm gonna die?" At this point, the interview gets disrupted as the patient withdraws. Asking what the news means is a structurally dispreferred way of handling problems of meaning, and as such this patient's exhibition of difficulty is an outcome of orderly social practices. A clinician's withholding of auspicious meaning assessment may undermine the relationship with patients and/or family members and disrupt the encounter.

Suggested Citation

  • Maynard, Douglas W., 2006. ""Does it mean I'm gonna die?": On meaning assessment in the delivery of diagnostic news," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 62(8), pages 1902-1916, April.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:62:y:2006:i:8:p:1902-1916

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Heritage, John & Stivers, Tanya, 1999. "Online commentary in acute medical visits: a method of shaping patient expectations," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, pages 1501-1517.
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