This study asks: How do older patients and their doctors deal with social problems in the discourse of routine medical encounters? Our research has been influenced by a growing recognition of narratives as an important analytic focus in the study of patient-doctor communication. We attempted to advance theoretical knowledge by emphasizing elements of sociocultural context, ideology, social control, underlying structure, and features of discourse that appear marginal to medicine's technical tasks. Based on a critical review of both quantitative and qualitative techniques in research on patient-doctor communication, we tried to move methodologically beyond prior work by developing a new interpretive method with systematic criteria to guide the sampling of encounters, transcription of recordings, interpretation of transcripts, and presentation of findings. We applied the interpretive method to 50 encounters selected randomly from a stratified random sample of 336 audiotaped encounters involving patients and primary care internists. As shown by illustrative encounters, a characteristic narrative structure and sequencing emerge, which tend to marginalize contextual problems, to leave them incompletely expressed, and to reinforce ideologies of stoicism and individualism.