An Introduction to Medical Anthropology

Medical anthropologists use the tools, techniques, and theories of anthropology to study medical systems. Since every culture on earth has some way of treating the sick, medical anthropology has something to tell us about health and healing everywhere.

Thinking traditionally, of the study of “primitive” cultures, we picture anthropologists working with tribal shamans or native healers, documenting their not-outmoded and superstitious world. The reality is quite different.

Ethnobotanists like Wade Davis contribute to medical anthropology when they study how different cultures use healing planets and discover possible new cures for cancer or diabetes. Medical anthropologists help prevent worldwide epidemics by studying exactly how diseases are transmitted in social systems, and what effective interventions might look like. Medical anthropology training helps health care professionals provide appropriate treatment to diverse populations across the globe.

The fact is, we are all members of cultures and subcultures that influence our behavior. As science begins to understand the tremendous influence our thoughts, emotions, and expectations have on our health, medical anthropologists are sought after for research projects and program design.

Today, many of our most frightening health challenges are global. How is avian flu carried from country to country? Can we predict (and prevent) the next flu epidemic? How can we design education programs to contain the transmission of the AIDS virus across the world? While medical science clearly has a vital role, questions are essentially anthropological. A scientific understanding of what a virus is will not change human behavior, an understanding of culture just might.

Today, many of our health management issues relate to lifestyle choices. How can we get Americans off couches and into exercise programs? Diabetes is especially prevalent in rural areas what do we need to know about diet, health practices, and social support to design effective treatments? Why do teens engage in risky behaviors, and how can we develop programs to reduce this pattern? Again, these are health issues whose answers lie in the realm of culture and society, not in science laboratories.

Medical anthropology also embraces the study of health and healing through history, helping us understand how different peoples define health and illness. While this part of the field may seem to have only “academic” interest, it helps us understand that health itself is a concept that is not the same for everyone, an idea that can improve medical care systems today.