Embodied illness and the problem of the informant's authority
Sociology University of Padova Padova, Italy
What anthropologists call ?ethnographic authority? becomes for sociologists the problem of the ?informant's authority?. To know who it is that speaks, and the limits of his/hers legitimacy in speaking, is a general problem in narrative research; but of the highest importance in a field -illness narratives- where people are often deprived of their voice by disease. An epistemological analysis is proposed, which takes into account the necessity to distinguish among three different kinds of (narrated) experience: direct, mediated and imagined.
Embodied experience of illness is a peculiar turning point that brings us to change the way we conceive our body. When we experience illness our own body shifts from making part of a world of objects to becoming part of the 'Ego' dimension. So, when we are the narrating subject, the informant about our own experience of illness, we talk both 'about' a body and 'from' that same body: our own is the only 'direct' experience that can be made of our illness.
Other people's accounts about our illness are different under several aspects -be they friends or relatives, rather than medical operators. They do not share our body, and their experiencing our experience cannot be an embodied one. Clearly, it is possible for another person to make experience 'of the same disease'; but illness is a personal dimension.
So, when we are object of experience for others, they can legitimately talk about their 'direct' experience of living with us, or of taking care of us. In other moments, they can talk about something we told them, so giving voice to 'our' cognition, and 'our' feelings. In that case, it is legitimate to assume that they are merely representing our authority, and that they are mere repetitors of our discourse. But there are also moments in narratives where people talk about what they merely 'imagine' our experiences are.
The discussion of this frame of analysis will be exemplified using narratives taken from researches in the haemodyalisis and ophthalmologic fields.