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The 5 Approaches of Medical Anthropology

a blue mask, glass vial, and medical syringe

As I mentioned in a previous post, Medical Anthropology is the anthropological study of health and illness. This subfield of anthropology consists of five basic approaches. Note: Some textbooks merge some of these approaches into just three, but I was taught that there are five approaches, so that is what I will discuss here.

Epidemiological or Ecological Approach

The first approach is the Epidemiological or Ecological approach. This approach to Medical Anthropology focuses on the interaction of biological and cultural factors in health and disease. It studies the factors that increase or decrease people’s chances of developing a disease. Sometimes, cultural practices increase the chances of getting sick.

Here’s an example. Kuru is a fatal prion disease that makes the brain deteriorate. It is similar to “mad cow” disease. Some time ago in a remote area of New Guinea, hundreds of people were contracting kuru, and no one knew why. Eventually, it was discovered that in this culture, when people died their body was eaten by the women and children. Specific family members were supposed to eat certain parts of the body, to help the dead person’s soul get to the land of the ancestors. This cultural practice transmitted the kuru disease, increasing the chances that people would get sick.

Illustration of a virus in pink with a blue background

Ethnomedical Approach

The second approach is the Ethnomedical approach. This approach to Medical Anthropology focuses on ethnomedicine. Ethnomedicine is a culture’s beliefs and practices relating to health and illness. So, for example, this approach studies things like concepts of disease, illness terminology (words used to describe illness), theories of causation (what people believe is the cause of a disease), and how illnesses are diagnosed and treated. One type of ethnomedicine is biomedicine, which is another word for Western medicine.

Some people think that biomedicine is the best, and they look down on the medical systems of other cultures, especially those that involve sorcery or other supernatural things. Sometimes Western people even laugh at those in other places who think disease is caused by spirits or gods. But many Western people pray to a higher power when someone is ill, asking for healing. And, while Western people may understand that HIV is caused by a virus, they still may think AIDS is a punishment from God. So, even in Western cultures, health and disease can be connected to religion and the supernatural.

A surgery room with doctors in blue gowns and medical equipment

Interpretive Approach

The third approach is the Interpretive approach. This approach to Medical Anthropology focuses on the meaning and significance of illness. Diseases are not just diseases–there are meanings that culture attaches to them. For example, there can be negative connotations with certain diseases.

Would you want to announce to people in public that you have herpes? Probably not, because sexually transmitted diseases are stigmatized in many places. Would you want everyone to know you have schizophrenia? Also, probably not, because once again mental illness is also stigmatized in many places. These are just a few examples of the meanings we attach to diseases.

Critical Medical Anthropology

The fourth approach is Critical Medical Anthropology (CMA). This approach to Medical Anthropology focuses on things like the role of power, economics, and politics in health and illness. Socioeconomic factors, such as poverty, unequal access to food and healthcare, etc., can affect health and disease.

For example, diarrheal diseases like cholera kill millions of people every year. But this disease is not just caused by a germ. It is also caused by poverty. People in cholera stricken areas are often so poor that they don’t have toilets, and so water wells become contaminated by fecal matter. And then the people get infected with cholera.

Here’s another example. In Western countries, HIV is a manageable disease, and not necessarily a death sentence. But in poor countries, people cannot afford medical treatment for HIV, and so they die. They didn’t really die just due to the HIV virus, but due to a lack of access to health care.

Image of a "slum" area with shacks near a body of water

Applied Medical Anthropology

The fifth approach is Applied Medical Anthropology. This approach focuses on the application of Medical Anthropology to help solve real-world problems. Sometimes Applied Medical Anthropology highlights how cultural beliefs and practices can interact with the efforts of international health organizations.

For example, several years ago in Western Africa, there were some outbreaks of cholera, which is a serious water-borne diarrheal disease. To try and stop the outbreaks, educational health messages were developed. Posters were made with some of these health messages, but the people affected by cholera were not literate, so they couldn’t read the posters. Also, the mothers were told to keep their children away from dirt, but the village was made of dirt, and the floors of the huts were dirt. So mothers didn’t understand what they were supposed to do with their children.

Also, people were told to wash their hands with soap, but these people didn’t have soap, let alone a sink or clean water to wash their hands with. Then people were told to drink water with lemon added to it because the cholera organisms can’t live in an acidic environment. But then people thought lemon must be medicinal, and they drank pure lemon juice to try to prevent the disease.

In situations like these, applied medical anthropologists can help international health organizations create effective health messages that are culturally appropriate.

Learn More

Want to learn more about the different approaches in Medical Anthropology? Check out this link, “Theoretical Approaches in Medical Anthropology.

Thanks for reading!