From Dis-Ability to Difference: Conceptual and Methodological Issues in the Study of Physical Disability

  • Christina Papadimitriou
Part of the Philosophy and Medicine book series (PHME, volume 68)


This paper discusses conceptual and methodological concerns in the study of physical disability and the human body from the perspective of a phenomenologically informed sociology.1 The study of physical disability and the human body has claimed the attention of philosophers, social scientists, psychologists, physicians, public health administrators, insurers, and so forth, each of whom brings a unique disciplinary perspective as well as distinct research interests and goals. In this paper I identify theoretical and conceptual biases in the study of disability that: (1) tend to narrow its understanding to a unitary phenomenon, i.e., as a dysfunction (either patho- physiological or psychological) affecting only the individual; (2) hamper its conceptualization as a form of difference; and (3) restrict the ability of persons with disabilities to live independent and respectful lives. Further, I demonstrate how socio-political conceptions of disability raise many theoretical and practical questions regarding research, as well as fostering the uncritical use of notions of normality and difference.2 Contemporary research on disability and the human body is faced with a challenge: to describe and analyze the world of disability within its social, political and human contexts without perpetuating biased assumptions, ignoring bodily differences, and marginalizing the experience of disability.3 This paper suggests that a phenomenologically-informed sociology can help researchers meet this challenge. Instead of seeing able-bodied and dis-abled persons as separate and opposed, disabled embodiment may be conceived as a form of human diversity, thus moving towards an understanding of dis-ability as difference. This paper discusses how researchers can reach this understanding through the phenomenological technique of bracketing and by listening to the criticisms offered by disability advocates and writers.


Physical Disability Disable Person Wheelchair User Empathic Understanding Meditation Technique 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Ainlay, S.C., Becker, G., and L.M. Coleman: 1986, The Dilemma of Difference: A Multidisciplinaty View of Stigma, Plenum Press, New York and London.Google Scholar
  2. Acker, X, Barry, K., and X Esseveld: 1991, ‘Objectivity and truth: Problems in doing feminist research’, in M.M. Fonow and X A Cook (eds.), Beyond Methodology: Feminist Scholarship as Lived Research, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, pp.133–153.Google Scholar
  3. Bittner, E.: 1973, ‘Objectivity and realism in sociology’, in G. Psathas (ed.), Phenomenological Sociology: Issues and Applications, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York, pp. 109–125.Google Scholar
  4. Bulman, R.J. and C.B. Wortman: 1977, ‘Attributions of blame and coping in the “Real World”: Severe accident victims react to their lot’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35, 351–363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cahill, E.S. and R. Eggleston: 1995, ‘Reconsidering the stigma of disability: Wheelchair use and public kindness’, The Sociological Quarterly 36, 681–698.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Charlton, I.J: 1998, Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment, University of California Press, CAGoogle Scholar
  7. Davis, J.L.: 1995, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body, Verso, New York.Google Scholar
  8. Fabrega, H., Jr. and P.K. Manning: 1972, ‘Disease, illness, and deviant careers’, in Scott and Douglas (eds.), Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance, Basic Books, Inc. Publishers, New York and London.Google Scholar
  9. Fay, B.: 1996, Contemporary Philosophy of Social Science: A Multicultural Approach, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, England.Google Scholar
  10. Fine, M. and A. Asch (eds.): 1988, Women with Disabilities: Essays in Psychology, Culture, and Politics, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.Google Scholar
  11. Frank, G.: 1988, ‘On embodiment: A case study of congenital limb deficiency in American culture’, in M. Fine and A. Asch (eds.), Women with Disabilities: Essays in Psychology, Culture, and Politics, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.Google Scholar
  12. Frank, G.: 1985, ‘“Becoming the Other”: Empathy and biographical interpretation’, Biography 8, 189–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Frye, M.: 1996, ‘Oppression’, in K. Rosenblum and T-M. Travis (eds.), The Meaning of Difference: American Constructions of Race, Sex and Gender, Social Class, and Sexual Orientation, McGraw-Hill Co., pp. 163–167.Google Scholar
  14. Gill, C. J.: 1994, The Disability Rag 15, 3–7.Google Scholar
  15. Goffman, E.: 1963, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.Google Scholar
  16. Goode, D.: 1994, A World Without Words: The Social Construction of Children Born Deaf and Blind, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.Google Scholar
  17. Hahn, H.: 1988, ‘The politics of physical differences: Disability and discrimination’, Journal of Social Issues 44, 39–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Huspek, M.: 1994, ‘Critical ethnography and subjective experience’, Human Studies 17, 45–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Leder, D.: 1990, The Absent Body, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.Google Scholar
  20. Livneh, H.: 1982, ‘On the origins of negative attitudes toward people with disabilities’, Rehabilitation Literature, 43, 338–347.Google Scholar
  21. Linton, S.: 1998, Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity, New York University Press, New York.Google Scholar
  22. Lowie, R.H.: 1960, ‘Empathy, or “Seeing from within’”, in S. Diamond (ed.), Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin, Columbia University Press, New York, pp. 145–159.Google Scholar
  23. Mandell, N.: 1991, ‘The least-adult role in studying children’, in F. Waksler (ed.), Studying the Social Worlds of Children: Sociological Readings, The Falmer Press, London, pp. 38–59.Google Scholar
  24. Merleau-Ponty, M.: 1968, The Visible and the Invisible, A. Linguis (trans.), Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois.Google Scholar
  25. Merleau-Ponty, M.: 1962, Phenomenology of Perception, C. Smith (trans.), Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.Google Scholar
  26. Miner, M.: 1997, ‘“Making up stories as we go along”: Men, Women, and Narratives of Disability’, in D.T. Mitchell and S.L. Snyder (eds.), The Body and Physical Disability: Discourses of Disability, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, pp. 41–71.Google Scholar
  27. Mitchell, D.T. and S.L. Snyder (eds.): 1997, The Body and Physical Disability: Discourses of Disability, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.Google Scholar
  28. Oliver, M.: 1996, Understanding Disability: From Theory to Practice, St. Martin’s Press, New York.Google Scholar
  29. Oliver, M.: 1990, ThePolitics of Disablement: A Sociological Approach, St. Martin’s Press, New York.Google Scholar
  30. Oliver, M.: 1984, ‘The politics of disability’, Critical Social Theory 4, 21–32.Google Scholar
  31. Russell, M.: 1994, ‘Malcolm teaches us, too’, Disability Rag, 11–12.Google Scholar
  32. Safilios-Rothschild, C: 1970, The Sociology and Social Psychology of Disability and Rehabilitation, Random House, New York.Google Scholar
  33. Schutz, A.: 1962, The Problem of Social Reality, Vol. 1, Collected Papers, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.Google Scholar
  34. Seymour, W.: 1998, Remaking the Body: Rehabilitation and Change, Routledge.Google Scholar
  35. Shakespeare, T.: 1996, ‘Power and prejudice: Issues of gender, sexuality and disability’, in L. Barton (ed.), Disability and Society: Emerging Issues and Insights, Longman Ltd., London and New York, pp. 191–214.Google Scholar
  36. Shildrick, M. and J. Price: 1996, ‘Breaking the boundaries of the broken body’, Body and Society 2, 93–113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Stein, E.: 1964, On the Problem of Empathy, E. W. Straus (trans.), Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.Google Scholar
  38. Toombs, S.K.: 2001, ‘The role of empathy in clinical practice’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 8, 247–258.Google Scholar
  39. Toombs, S.K.: 1995, ‘The lived experience of disability’, Human Studies 18, 9–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Toombs, S.K.: 1993, The Meaning of Illness: A Phenomenological Account of the Different Perspectives of Physician and Patient, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands.Google Scholar
  41. Watson, L.C.: 1976, ‘Understanding a life history as a subjective document: Hermeneutical and phenomenological perspectives’, Ethos 4, 95–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Waksler, F.C.: 2001, ‘The phenomenological method and medicine’, in this volume.Google Scholar
  43. Waksler, F.C.: 1995, ‘Introductory essay: Intersubjectivity as a practical matter and a problematic achievement’, Human Studies 18, 1–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Weller, D.J. and P.M. Miller: 1977, ‘Emotional reactions of patient, family, and staff in acute-care period of spinal cord injury’, Social Work in Health Care 3, 7–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Zaner, R.M.: 1971, The Problem of Embodiment: Some Contributions to a Phenomenology of the Body, Second Edition, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christina Papadimitriou
    • 1
  1. 1.American College of ThessalonikiGreece

Personalised recommendations