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Putting Stress in Life: Hans Selye and the Making of Stress Theory

Russell Viner
Social Studies of Science
Vol. 29, No. 3 (Jun., 1999), pp. 391-410
Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/285410
Page Count: 20
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Abstract

Hans Selye discovered Stress in 1935 as a syndrome occurring in laboratory rats. In the modern world, Stress has become a universal explanation for human behaviour in industrial society. Selye's discovery arose out of widespread interest in the stability of bodily systems in 1930s' physiology; however, his findings were rejected by physiologists until the 1970s. This analysis is framed in terms of Latour's actor-network theories, and traces the translation of Stress from the animal laboratory into the narratives of modern life experience. This mapping reveals that translation was brought about by Selye's recruitment of a broadly based constituency outside of academic physiology, whose members each saw in Stress a validation of their pre-existing ideas of the relationship of the human mind and body in industrial civilization. While Selye was successful in realizing Stress as a scientific fact, he was unable to make his institute the obligatory passage point for Stress research. Selye's notion of a universal non-specific reaction has become accepted in almost all forms of human discourse about life and health, and physiologists in the 1990s use Stress as a unifying concept to understand the interaction of organic life with the environment. However, this modern use of Stress contains none of the physiological postulates of Selye's original findings.

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