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Sickness experience and language : aspects of Tongan and Western accounting

In this study of Tongan healing practices, the author has chosen not simply to record participants’ roles or medicinal preparations but rather, the concern of this study is to understand the ‘doing’ of sickness as a social practice. Two main sociological techniques have been applied. Firstly, a hermeneutic - phenomenological approach was used to attain recordings of, and to analyze, the sickness theorizing of members of Tongan society. The ‘sickness talk’ of these members provides a record of some aspects of contemporary Tongan healing practices. The ‘sickness talk’ is also analyzed using Wittgenstein’s concept of ‘rule-usage’ in the ‘language game’ of sickness. This form of analysis indicated certain individual and public relevances which are grounded upon the Tongan way of life. Thus speakers’ accounts are analyzed in terms of what sickness talk ‘shows’ as well as what it ‘says’, disclosing cultural process instead of simply cultural product. Discussion on ‘diagnosis’ shows that in order to define the problematic situation of sickness, the phenomena are organized into a classification, that is, members have to ‘capture’, ‘fix’, ‘concretize’ the confronting transient phenomena and apply a sickness label as a ‘working definition’. Tongan sickness ‘types’ are shown to be not only different from Western ‘types’, but aspects of the process of constructing that difference are also shown to be implicit in the sickness talk. Diagnosis as a social process is not seen as the labelling of an ‘objective fact’, ‘a sickness’; nor is therapy understood as being some ‘thing’ that gets a person ‘better’. Tongan explanatory models, developed to explain sickness causation, differ essentially from Western explanatory models of sickness in that Tongans have developed a social model of prevention and cure while in the West, a biological model has been developed. Explanation is understood here not as the causal accounting of sickness but as the explanation of enigmatic consequences. The latter sections of the study on doing sickness as ‘kinship’ and as ‘healer’ not only add to the record on contemporary healing practices but also emphasize the Tongan social model of sickness. This study therefore, is not only a record, albeit a partial one, of contemporary Tongan healing practices, it also shows how these particular Tongans define certain sickness situations and devise a strategy to resolve that problematic situation. That is, it shows how committing certain experiences to language ‘is’ the ordering process. Rather than any magico-religious or scientific-biological model providing the basis of sickness practice in Tongan society, kinship is proposed as the underlying organizing principle. The comparative mode of analysis, in relation to Tongan and Western sickness theorizing, avoids presenting Western explanation as a model by which Tongan theorizing can be evaluated. Instead, in analyzing Tongan healing practices showing knowledge and relevance(s), substantive dimensions of Western theorizing and practice are disclosed. In selecting a limited number of members’ sickness accounts over a period of six and a half months in Tonga, I have not attempted to randomly sample the Tongan population in order to generalize my ‘findings’ to the whole of Tongan society. Instead my interest has been to give an interpretation of some aspects of Tongan sickness theorizing which may or may not be altered by similar and more extensive studies in the future. Contrary to what may be seen as being medical and anthropological expectations, Tongan traditional healing practices have not declined since Western contact, rather, they have developed from reportedly limited skills at that time, to an extensive network of healing practice today.
Type of thesis
The University of Waikato
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