Gender differences in perceptions of pain : towards a phenomenological approach
This research explores the relationship between perceptions of pain and illness and the social characteristics of the individual, with a focus on the role of gender. It emphasizes the meaning and understanding of the phenomenon of pain, which as an area of research has been neglected by medical sociology. A survey of sociological, medical, psychological, anthropological and literary perspectives on pain reveals a consensus that pain is a 'subjective' phenomenon, and that there are therefore limitations in applying 'objective' measurements. Recent developments in the sociology of health and illness, particularly in the area of emotions, offer potential theoretical and methodological frameworks and these are explored. To try to broaden the definition of pain beyond the traditional biomedical approach a multi-method form of enquiry was adopted. A self-completion questionnaire examining health beliefs, and experiences of illness and pain during the life-cycle, was administered to a random sample of 107 men and women attending a GP practice in North West London. Significant gender differences were found with respect to the role of the emotions and social expectations of coping ability. These themes formed the basis of the second stage of fieldwork, in which a sub-sample of 21 men and women participated in a semi-structured in-depth interview, including the use of visual imagery. This explored definitions and experiences of pain. Responses were taperecorded and transcribed. Analysis of both the transcripts and the material relating to the use of visual imagery revealed complex and abstract conceptualisations of pain, related to the social context of the individual. Expenences of pain were found to incorporate feelings and vulnerabilities, and existential and religious beliefs as well nociceptive or sensory components. The attribution to women of superior capacities in coping with pain were phenomenologically linked to female biological and reproductive functioning, but also seen to be underpinned by gendered socialization and role-expectations.