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What is Medical Anthropology?

female doctor wearing blue scrubs and hat, holding a stethoscope

As you probably know, I am an Anthropologist. In some previous posts (here and here and here), I mentioned that I am a Medical Anthropologist– I specialize in Medical Anthropology. I even worked as a Medical Anthropologist for the Cleveland Clinic, the #2 hospital in the world! What is Medical Anthropology, exactly? Well, this post will explain everything!

Medical Anthropology is one of many subfields in Anthropology. It focuses on the study of health and illness. Medical Anthropology highlights that there is more to health and illness than just biological things like germs. There are social and cultural dimensions of health and illness as well. 

Here’s a made up example, based on real life situations. Say there is a woman in East Africa who becomes HIV positive, and later dies. If you ask a medical doctor why she died, they would probably explain that the HIV virus killed her. 

But if you ask a Medical Anthropologist the same question, they might explain her death like this: The woman’s husband was away working in a nearby city, and was having sex with sex workers. He contracted HIV. Then, the husband had unprotected sex with his wife, infecting her with HIV. They did not use condoms because in that culture, condoms are thought to be only for people with diseases. So, condom use is stigmatized. When the woman became sick with HIV, she did not have access to medical care due to extreme poverty. So, she went untreated and later died.

So, there is more to HIV than just the virus–there are social and cultural factors as well. And, this is true of all diseases, not just HIV. Medical Anthropology focuses on these social and cultural factors in health and disease. 

Medical Anthropology. Image of medical technology hanging on the wall in a doctor's office.

Here are some examples of topics that Medical Anthropology explores:

  • Ethnomedicine (the health practices of a culture)
  • Biomedicine (Western medicine) as a cultural phenomenon
  • Traditional medicine (such as Chinese medicine or Indian Ayurveda)
  • Medical pluralism (Using more than one type of medical system to treat an illness. For example, someone may see a doctor for Western medicine but also go to a chiropractor.)
  • Knowledge, perceptions, and beliefs about illness in different cultures
  • Explanatory models of illness (what people think is the cause, symptoms, and treatments of a disease)
  • People’s experiences of health and illness, often told through illness narratives (stories people tell about their illness, starting from the first recognition of symptoms, and on to testing, diagnosis, and treatment)
  • The meaning of an illness (Do they believe it is a test from God? Their fate? A punishment? etc.)
  • Perceptions of risk
Medical Anthropology. Image of an ambulance driving down a street.
  • Health seeking behavior (What do people do once they believe that they are ill? Do they self-treat at home? Buy something from a local pharmacy? Call a nurse? See a doctor? Go to the hospital? Visit an acupuncturist? See an herbalist? etc.)
  • International public health/global health
  • Health policies (local, national, and international)
  • The social and cultural context of epidemics
  • Cultural and social factors in the transmission of specific diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and ebola
  • Cultural and social aspects of psychological disorders
  • Culture bound syndromes (illnesses that only exist in certain cultures)
  • Drug use (legal and illegal)
  • The relationship between poverty and illness
  • Structural violence (when political, economic, and structural factors like poverty, gender inequality, and racism affect health and illness)
  • Access to health care (Is medical treatment available nearby? Is it affordable?)
Medical Anthropology. Image of a woman looking at her newborn baby in a hospital.
  • The phenomenon of medicalization (For example, in the USA, giving birth is medicalized and done in hospitals under the guidance of doctors and nurses. But, in other parts of the world, birth is seen as just another part of life, and a natural process that is done at home.)
  • The relationship between doctors and patients
  • Shamans and other traditional healers
  • The sick role (how people are expected to act when they are sick)
  • Perceptions of medicines (Is it considered too strong to take? Too weak? What is associated with specific medicines? What colors of medicine are acceptable? What form should medicine be? Pill? Injection? etc.)
Medical Anthropology. Image of a weekly medicine container and some different colored pills.
  • Ethnopharmacology (What plants are used for medicines in other parts of the world?)
  • Placebos and the placebo effect
  • The relationship between nutrition and health, and nutrition-related diseases
  • Health and the human life cycle (pregnancy, childbirth, infancy, childhood, adulthood, old age)
  • Death and dying (How do different cultures handle death?)
  • Organ transplantation, including the black market for organs
  • Bioethics/medical ethics
  • Evolutionary medicine (How has our evolution made us susceptible to certain diseases and health conditions?)
  • Much more!
Image of two vials with yellow liquid in them, and a mortar and pestle with plant leaves.

As you can see, the field of Medical Anthropology is very diverse and studies a lot of topics related to health and illness! 

There is also a subfield of Medical Anthropology called Applied Medical Anthropology. Applied Medical Anthropology applies the perspective of Medical Anthropology to real-world problems. For example, a Medical Anthropologist can help health organizations develop culturally appropriate interventions. They can also direct cultural sensitivity training programs for medical professionals, and much, much more!

For more information about Medical Anthropology, check out the Society for Medical Anthropology’s website.

Which of the above topics in Medical Anthropology are YOU most interested in? Leave a message in the comments below!

Thanks for reading!