Languages of Labor: Negotiating the “Real” and the Relational in Indo-Fijian Women’s Expressions of Physical Pain


Medical personnel in public clinics in Fiji routinely contend that state-funded medical resources are misallocated on patients who complain of, but do not actually experience, physical pain. Frequently, these patients are identified as being Indo-Fijian women (i.e., women of South Asian origin in Fiji). In this article, I examine clinical interactions between medical staff and female Indo-Fijian patients to demonstrate how “real” and ‘unreal’ pain are distinguished in the clinical setting and to indicate some of the roles clinical encounters play in community processes that ascribe alternative meanings to physical pain. Focusing on how both physicians and women patients foster certain interpretations of physical pain over others, I argue that the category of ‘unreal’ pain, as employed by Fiji’s physicians, consists of pain that medical professionals consider to be induced by psychological or physical, work-related stresses. I then show how Indo-Fijian women engage in a complementary but distinct discourse that emphasizes links between physical labor and pain and suggests that, in some cases, expressions of physical pain are as much an idiom of pride as an idiom of distress.