A Discourse of Deviance: Blame, Shame, Stigma and the Social Construction of Head and Neck Cancer

Carla Thamm, Alexandra L. McCarthy, Patsy Yates

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Cancer of the head and neck is a confronting condition, as the disease and its treatments alter the appearance and function of body organs associated with physical appearance and identity. Many of the risk factors for head and neck cancers, including tobacco, alcohol, and human papilloma virus, can also have significant negative social and moral permutations. Language and action (discourse) plays an important role in constructing disease and illness and shape the way it is managed, both institutionally and socially. This research used a critical constructionist lens to investigate how the common discourses surrounding head and neck cancer are constructed within the healthcare context and how this influences patients and healthcare professionals’ responses to the illness. Data were collected through semi-structured interviews, field noting, journaling and literature reviews. Analysis was guided by a three-dimensional approach to critical discourse analysis that investigated text, discursive practices, and social context. The overarching finding was that deviance dominates the common discourse and shapes head and neck cancer and responses to it. Deviance is channelled through metaphors, adjectives, descriptors, and collective nouns and is made overt through labelling, avoidance, blaming, shame, and categorization. Discourse is contextualized by a sociocultural understanding that when someone deviates from what is perceived as normal, they are devalued. Open dialogue and reflection on head and neck cancer discourse could enable better understanding of how people experience their condition and inform more supportive responses.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages13
JournalQualitative Health Research
Early online date29 Nov 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 29 Nov 2023


  • deviance
  • discourse
  • head and neck cancer
  • illness and disease
  • social construction


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