Contested Illness: Managing the Uncertainities of Gulf-War Illness

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2006


Based on observation and in-depth interviews with fifty-five respondents, we provide a detailed analysis of the Gulf War illness experience. All chronically ill people experience troublesome physical symptoms, but most reasonably expect to receive medical answers and treatment, in addition to the support of family, friends, employers, and coworkers. This research addresses a circumstance where neither sick people nor the medical establishment has clear answers to the basic etiology and treatment of illness. Consequently, many veterans endure doubt, threats to their credibility, and intensified stigma. The resulting ambiguity and stigma initiate efforts to redefine and renegotiate the illness experience. Drawing heavily from the thick descriptions provided by Gulf War veterans and their spouses, we document assaults on the physical body, emotional stability, social status, and selfhood, as well as negative effects on social relations. We also examine how institutional barriers influence the contested illness experience.


Sociology and Corrections

Publication Title

Symbolic Interaction