The Meaning of Pain: Exploring the Intersections of Poetry and Ethnography

Catherine Trundle

School of Social and Cultural Studies / Te Kura Mahinga Tangata, Victoria University of Wellington / Te Herenga Waka

Susan Wardell

Social Anthropology / Mātai Tikaka Takata, University of Otago / Te Whare Wānanga o Otāgo


Ethnographers aim to understand life as lived, as poetry aims to evoke it. As social (and specifically medical) anthropologists navigating cross-currents of disciplinary expectations, in this article we hold ethnography and poetry side-by-side. We ask what they share and where they diverge. Specifically, we explore how poetry and ethnography inhabit (and are inhabited by) the physical, psychological and social experiences of pain. We each share our experiences of writing poetry as practicing anthropologists, and consider the potential for active cross-pollinations of ethnographic and poetic practice as a route to understanding both the heights and depths of embodied human experience.


Poetry; Ethnography; Writing; Pain; Suffering; Health

Author contact: catherine.trundle [at]; susan.wardell [at]

Citation: Trundle, C., and Wardell, S., 2019. “The Meaning of Pain: Exploring the Intersections of Poetry and Ethnography”, Irish Journal of Anthropology, 22(1), 238-253.