Organ transplantation as a transformative experience: anthropological insights into the restructuring of the self

Med Anthropol Q. 1995 Sep;9(3):357-89. doi: 10.1525/maq.1995.9.3.02a00050.


Transplantation represents in the popular mind the pinnacle of biomedical knowledge and skill. Its feasibility depends upon the management of conflicting cultural values surrounding death and dying, where diverse parties consider bodies and their parts to be personal property, sacred entities, or offerings to the common good. Specifically within the specialized transplant community, viable organs are scarce, socially valuable resources. The ideology that guides transplant professionals, however, is rife with contradictions: close inspection reveals unease over definitions of death and rights to body parts. Ideological disjunction arises from the competing needs to personalize and to objectify organs and bodies. Organ recipients struggle with these contradictory messages as they rebuild their sense of self and self-worth following transplantation. This transformative process is explored by analyzing professional writings and data generated from ethnographic research in the United States. The study ends by examining transformed identity as fictionalized and extended biography.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Anthropology, Cultural*
  • Attitude to Death
  • Capitalism
  • Commodification*
  • Cultural Diversity
  • Ego*
  • Feasibility Studies
  • Gift Giving*
  • Human Body*
  • Humans
  • Organ Transplantation / psychology*
  • Personhood*
  • Social Values*
  • Tissue Donors / psychology
  • Tissue and Organ Procurement*
  • United States