Patients’ Narratives of Chronic Illnesses and the Notion of Biographical Disruption


  • Roxana Delbene Alvernia University



chronic illness, biographical disruption, complicating action, narrative structure, phenomenology, plot


Bury’s (1982) argument that the onset of a chronic illness represents a biographical disruption has become paradigmatic in the sociology of illness studies. More recently Bury (1991, 1997) himself, Williams (2000) and other medical sociologists have argued that the notion of illness as biographical disruption needs re-examination. Following a phenomenological approach, in this paper the author draws on different narrative models (Labov and Waletzky 1967 and Ricoeur 1980) to analyze how patients orient to the onset of chronic illness as the complicating action. The data comprise eight narratives collected in South America: three correspond to patients with renal failure, and five to patients with HIV/AIDS disease. It is observed that in some cases, patients’ complicating actions are rather oriented to experiences of poverty, drug addiction, and criminality that took place prior to their onset of their illnesses. These experiences, instead of the onset of their illnesses, occupy the place of the complicating action in these patients’ narratives. The author discusses that in the studies of illness narratives, it is difficult to operate from a different paradigm, but argues that conflating the onset of chronic illness with a biographical disruption may confuse the episodic dimension of narrative with the configurational dimension.

Author Biography

Roxana Delbene, Alvernia University

Roxana Delbene received her Ph.D. in Hispanic linguistics from the University of Pittsburgh. She is currently an assistant professor at Alvernia University in Reading, Pennsylvania. Her research interests include narratives of illness, emotive communication, and the construction of stigmatized identities.



How to Cite

Delbene, R. (2011). Patients’ Narratives of Chronic Illnesses and the Notion of Biographical Disruption. Communication and Medicine, 8(1), 17–27.