Health as Identity: Alternative Medicine, Organic Individualism, and Symbolic Authority

Hickey, Christopher Jon, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Hays, Sharon, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Milner, Murray, As-Sociology, University of Virginia
Bryson, Bethany, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Taylor, Ann, Nr-Nursing Faculty, University of Virginia

This study, based on indepth qualitative interviews with American users of alternative medicine, argues that the social significance of the American alternative medical movement is to be found in particular forms of American individualism. The result, I argue, is a form of health-seeking behavior which makes American alternative medicine part search for cure, part search for leisure, and part search for identity. I argue here that increasing numbers of Americans have turned to alternative medicine in the last 35 years not only because it has offered cures from disease and alleviation from suffering, but also an outlet for their distinctly natural, therapeutically-oriented, spiritually-informed definitions of their social worlds and themselves. Specifically, I argue that alternative health users represent the effects of what I refer to as “organic individualism” within modern health-seeking behavior. Organic individualism, I contend, is an outgrowth of expressive individualism, a brand of individualism which posits “cultivation and expression of the self, the exploration of its vast social and cosmic identities” (Bellah, et al., 1985: 35) as the greatest ends toward which human beings can strive. Organic individualism goes beyond the confines of expressive individualism in three key areas: its insistence on the centrality of the physical body and of nature in the process of self-discovery, and in its contention that self-fulfillment necessarily occurs best outside institutional constraints. This perspective deeply influenced the ways in which my respondents thought about symbolic authority structures. And these resulting ideas about authority caused them to think in certain ways about nature, the body, professions, and religion, which, in turn, prodded them towards alternative medicine. The assumption here is that medicine is not simply a practical tool which tries to bring about certain desired ends for its users. Medicine is a cultural system which patients use to construct meaning for their lives. In this study, I contend that the rise of CAM corresponds to changing ideas and visions of the self and authority in American society, which, while distinct, and somewhat new, are sociologically comprehensible, and sociologically significant.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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