Discourse, Power, and the Diagnosis of Weakness: Encountering Practitioners in Bangladesh

James M. Wilce

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


The author's experiences as a "patient" of nonbiomedical practitioners, and an examination of Bangladeshis' encounters with practitioners (dāktārs [biomedical doctors], herbalists, exorcists, and diviners), reveal the interactive means by which the diagnosis of durbalatā (weakness) is constructed. In the cases presented, facing power in the person of the practitioner means losing face. I argue that discursive phenomena above and below the lexical level are responsible. The phenomena described - (1) interruption or dismissal of the patient's words by practitioners and others present during the clinical encounter, (2) divinatory routines that assign the durbalatā label to women, and (3) one patient's use of "reaky" voice quality in a strictly "popular sector" (domestic) encounter - are nonreferential but socially significant semiotic processes that operate, for the most part, beneath the level of discursive awareness. These encounters and their outcomes have more to do with social reproduction than with any unambiguously effective therapeutic outcome.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)352-374
Number of pages23
JournalMedical Anthropology Quarterly
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1997


  • Bangladesh
  • Doctor-patient discourse
  • Language and cognition
  • Semiotics
  • Social construction of illness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology


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