BACKGROUND: This critique stems from a self-experienced frustration with the perspectives offered by current medical anthropology, when faced with informants in severe, acute pain. AIM: By shifting between discussing former and current academic approaches to pain in anthropology and examining ethnographic data material, the aim of this paper is to re-evaluate our approach to people in pain. METHODS: The study is founded partly on seven months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted at postoperative pain units and surgical wards in Danish and Italian hospitals in 2003-2004, partly on a perusal of the anthropological literature on pain from the 1950's up to today. RESULTS: The anthropological focus on pain has changed considerably during the last century from exotic tales of cultural codes of pain behaviour to illness narratives of pain experience. This shift in focus not only mirrors changes in our profession (the urge to escape cultural essentialism) but also reflects a current epistemological trend in much medical anthropology, namely the fascination by illness narratives. The illness narrative (of the patient) is said to offer unique insights into the human experience of pain, and is equally believed to be of therapeutic value in it-self. However captivating, this dual approach may bring severe limitations to the field of medical anthropology by 1) guiding our choice of study objects, e.g., people in chronic pain in preference to people in acute pain, and 2) by promoting equivocal ideas of a fundamental, phenomenological way of understanding pain. CONCLUSION: My empirical findings show that a narrative approach only offer a partial understanding of how we acquire knowledge of other people's pain - this goes for health professionals as well as ethnographers. A more contextual approach - studying pain behaviour in particular collectives of humans and non-humans - may offer more useful anthropological perspectives on how culture and pain are merged experiences of everyday life.