Suffering, Pain & Ethics Lab


The Suffering, Pain and Ethics Laboratory (SPEL) is devoted to the study of suffering, pain, violence, healing, and ethics in physical and health cultures.

Through the use of ethnographic research methods, visual documentary/film methods, and narrative ethics/narrative medicine, our goal is to better understand the relational nature of pain and suffering for people. Work out of the lab will focus on the multi-dimensional (physical, emotional, social, existential, and spiritual) nature of pain and suffering as experienced by a range of people in a full host of cultural-institutional settings.

While overtly employing and extolling the contributions of theories and methods in the social sciences and humanities toward the understanding and treatment of pain and suffering for people, the lab will collate and synthesize knowledge from the physical sciences in the process of knowing how people in pain and suffering experience the world in everyday life; developing improved plans for treating and helping manage pain and suffering for people in and through physical culture; and, helping better inform pain related bio-ethical decision-making inside and outside of medical/health fields.

Areas of Focus

SPEL is presently devoted to three core research foci related to human pain and suffering:

  1. The existential-phenomenological experience of pain and suffering;
  2. How pain communities develop, and how they play a role in organizing, interpreting, and representing people’s experiences with pain and suffering; and
  3. The implications of ethnographic, visual, and narrative-based knowledge on pain and suffering policy in health fields.

Current Research Projects

At present, five main projects structure SPEL research activities and interventions:

This long-term ethnographic project is designed to account for and theorize the experiences of people living with epilepsy in their search for safe and inclusive physical cultural and health practices. Drawing on the narratives of people living with epilepsy, we seek to account for how a range of ‘physical cultures are sought out in a collective quest for liminal brain, body, space, aesthetic, haptic, and sensual pleasures unavailable to them in mainstream sport/health environments.

This narrative ethnographic project is designed around several core principles of existential phenomenology, and inspects why young male athletes are especially at-risk of developing depression in the life course, and what it is like to be a young athlete suffering from depression. Blow Up the Outside: Sociogenesis, Men, and Suicide.

This narrative ethnographic work focus on major structural (work, family, political) and normative cultural shifts in Canadian society over the past three decades that are linked to increased suicide rates among men. The project seeks to better understand common sources of anxiety, alienation, and depression in men, and the relative lack of social awareness and support for men living on the edge of suicide.

This narrative ethnographic project focuses on the analysis of stories in palliative care settings involving child organ transplantation. Patients are enmeshed with their own families, health care providers, donors, donors’ families, and other patients awaiting transplants. Thus, this project seeks to explore the notion of relational suffering in the context where not only are body parts are shared among people, but also experiences, stories, pain, and suffering; what we may call ‘transplanted suffering’.

This historical/archival research project examines the genesis of the morgue, and its implications on the medical constructions of the human body. More specifically, we examine the role of the morgue in shifting discourses, ethical practices, and knowledge frameworks about the body as a system of functional parts. Here, we further inspect the use of death as a means of knowing life.

In addition to the above substantive projects, key activities for the lab will be the creation of collaborative research projects involving graduate (and undergraduate students), forging new research partner relationships with the University of Toronto in such Faculties, Schools and Departments as Medicine, Nursing, the School of Public Health, and the Joint Centre for Bioethics, and seeking new forms of emplacement and knowledge exchange amongst Toronto hospitals partnered with FKPE as part of the UHN system.

Recent Publications

Smith, K., and Atkinson, M. (2017). Avada kedavra: disenchantment, empathy, and leaving ethnography. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 9(5), 636-650. 


Scientific Team


Professor Michael Atkinson

Graduate And post-graduate Students

Kristina Smith 

Cecily Osborne

Stephanie Seymour

Amanda de Lisio

Sarah Gairdner 


Professor John Cairney, University of Toronto

Professor Caroline Fusco, University of Toronto

Professor Kass Gibson, University of St. Mark and St. John (UK)

Professor Melissa Day, University of Chichester (UK)

Professor Barbara Gibson, University of Toronto

Professor Anthony Papathomas, Loughborough University (UK)

Professor Andrew Smith, Edge Hill University (UK)

Professor Brett Smith, University of Birmingham (UK)

Professor Andrew Sparkes, Leeds Beckett University (UK)

Professor Toni Williams, Leeds Beckett University (UK)