Culture and Somatization: Clinical, Epidemiological, and Ethnographic Perspectives : Psychosomatic Medicine

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Special Issue: Cross-Cultural Research

Culture and Somatization

Clinical, Epidemiological, and Ethnographic Perspectives

Kirmayer, Laurence J. MD; Young, Allan PhD

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Psychosomatic Medicine 60(4):p 420-430, July/August 1998.



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


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.


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.


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.

Copyright © 1998 by American Psychosomatic Society

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