Date of Thesis

Spring 2022


Throughout my time as a Division I rower, I have struggled to understand the ways that I understand my own normalization of pain within a broader cultural environment that portrays pain as a mostly negative aspect of life. This moral quandary inspired me to start researching the role of pain in different socio-cultural contexts. For my thesis, I conducted original research, in the form of participant observation and semi-structured interviews, to build on what I found through an extensive literature review. First, I looked at the ways in which pain is understood within Western biomedicine and, subsequently, “Western” culture. Within this environment, people conceptualize pain as something that is treatable and, because of this, is theoretically unnecessary. Pain has no purpose in this cultural context; however, this perspective, while dominant within biomedical discourse, is not a universal ideology. In fact, pain treatment advocates introduced these ideas to Western biomedicine in the 19th century and faced significant pushback from their peers. However, their beliefs eventually became a seemingly intrinsic part of Western biomedical discourse.

In contrast to the Western biomedical cultural beliefs regarding pain, there are many instances where religious devotees participate in sacred pain rituals. Devotees report that their pain experiences were incredibly meaningful for them. In this context, pain is something to be desired instead of something to be feared or avoided at all costs. This outlook turns the biomedical perspective on its head because it illustrates how pain can be given meaning and purpose which, in turn, lessens the emotional suffering that someone in pain might experience. While these two outlooks are disparate, I found that athletes in the “Western World” mirror both perspectives, to an extent, in order to conceptualize their athletic-related pain in a way that allows them to continue participating in their respective sports. Athletes, then, are forced to navigate their way in a liminal state between these two frameworks. Throughout this thesis, I expand on the ways that athletes conceptualize the acceptance of “good” pain in a larger cultural context that medicalizes and stigmatizes pain and pain-seeking behavior, respectively. This research illustrates that, while the perspectives within Western biomedicine, athletics, and sacred pain rituals may appear to be drastically different, there are many ways that these outlooks mirror one another. Due to these similarities and differences, we should look at a variety of cultural beliefs about pain to better understand pain experiences.

Access Type

Honors Thesis

Degree Type

Bachelor of Arts



Second Major


First Advisor

Edmund Searles

Second Advisor

Allen Tran