Secondary Logo

Journal Logo

Institutional members access full text with Ovid®

Culture and Somatization: Clinical, Epidemiological, and Ethnographic Perspectives

Kirmayer, Laurence J. MD; Young, Allan PhD

Special Issue: Cross-Cultural Research

Objectives The cross-cultural prevalence of somatization and the limitations of current nosology and psychiatric theory for interpreting cultural variations in somatization are reviewed.

Method Selective review was conducted of recent research literature and research findings from an epidemiological survey and ethnographic study of help-seeking and health care utilization of a random sample of 2246 residents in a Canadian urban multicultural milieu.

Results Somatization is common in all ethnocultural groups and societies studied to date. However, significant differences in somatization across ethnocultural groups persist even where there is relatively equitable access to health care services. Analysis of illness narratives collected from diverse ethnocultural groups suggests that somatic symptoms are located in multiple systems of meaning that serve diverse psychological and social functions. Depending on circumstances, these symptoms can be seen as an index of disease or disorder, an indication of psychopathology, a symbolic condensation of intrapsychic conflict, a culturally coded expression of distress, a medium for expressing social discontent, and a mechanism through which patients attempt to reposition themselves within their local worlds.

Conclusion Major sources of differences in somatization among ethnocultural groups include styles of expressing distress ("idioms of distress"), the ethnomedical belief systems in which these styles are rooted, and each group's relative familiarity with the health care system and pathways to care. Psychological theories of somatization focused on individual characteristics must be expanded to recognize the fundamental social meanings of bodily distress.

From the Culture & Mental Health Research Unit, Sir Mortimer B. Davis-Jewish General Hospital, and Division of Social & Transcultural Psychiatry, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Address reprint requests to: Laurence J. Kirmayer, MD, Institute of Community & Family Psychiatry, Sir Mortimer B. Davis-Jewish General Hospital, 4333 Cote Ste-Catherine Rd., Montreal, Quebec H3T 1E4 Canada. E:mail:

Received for publication October 30, 1996; revision received September 3, 1997.

Copyright © 1998 by American Psychosomatic Society
You currently do not have access to this article

To access this article:

Note: If your society membership provides full-access, you may need to login on your society website