The classification and nomenclature of 'medically unexplained symptoms': conflict, performativity and critique

Soc Sci Med. 2012 Dec;75(12):2362-9. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.09.010. Epub 2012 Sep 18.


Persistent medically unexplained symptoms (MUS)--including the many syndromes that fall under this umbrella--involve a discrepancy between professional knowledge and lay experience and are often associated with latent or explicit dynamics of conflict. Although this conflictual dimension has been amply documented, little critical attention has been paid to how nomenclature and classification feed into the conflictual dynamic and are informed by it in turn. In this paper I engage with this question from a social-theoretical perspective informed by the concept of performativity. The paper offers a critical review of debates around the medical terminology in use, and a discussion of the alternative terminology developed by social scientists. Based on these, I argue that medical and social scientific discourse unwittingly collude in a disavowal of the psychological dimension of 'MUS'. I then discuss the paradoxical character of this disavowal and suggest that it tends to perpetuate polemical modes of engagement around 'MUS'. I conclude with suggestions on how further research might counteract this tendency.

MeSH terms

  • Conflict, Psychological*
  • Humans
  • Somatoform Disorders / classification*
  • Somatoform Disorders / psychology*
  • Terminology as Topic*
  • United Kingdom