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Who are we in the public imagination? (Carolyn Sargent)

January 7, 2010

When we present ourselves as medical anthropologists, some of us have been asked:

  • do you study dead people?
  • do you study bones?
  • what is a medical anthropologist?
  • what is an anthropologist?
  • and…what?!

In the comments section, let us know how you explain what you do, how this varies by audience, and if you have experienced “mistaken identity”.

More seriously, I hope that on this blog we can exchange thoughts about “what is at the core of medical anthropology?”

  • Overlapping theoretical concepts?  Shared methodologies?  And does it matter if we have a shared identity or definition of the field?
  • If you have an inclination to rewrite the “What is medical anthropology” statement on this website, please post your new version.

I look forward to comments, and please note the theme song I have selected from my favorite Malian vocalist, Oumou Sangare, entitled  “You Can’t Please Everyone….”

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2010 8:15 pm

    Since I introduce myself as a medical anthropologist on the radio, I am sometimes called upon to explain what that is, in very simple terms and little time. I usually point out that anthropology is the study of human beings (simple enough, even though it glosses an awful lot and doesn’t give the primates much room). Then I say that medical anthropologists are interested in how people’s beliefs and behaviors influence their health. Then if there’s time, I acknowledge that that can cover a lot of territory, from bones (very old) to hospitals (new).

    I’ll be watching for other simple definitions I can use in public!

  2. January 19, 2010 12:04 am

    Before I even really knew what it was I was asked to answer the question: What is Medical Anthropology? So I came up with my 25 words or less answer. I have been using it ever since.

    Medical anthropology is the study of health, illness and healing from a cultural and/or cross-cultural perspective.

  3. Ron Barrett permalink
    January 19, 2010 1:47 pm

    If I have time, I tell them that anthropology is the study of humankind and describe the four traditional fields. I then tell them that medical anthropology is any branch of anthropology applied to health, illness, and healing.

    This is usually after getting a puzzled look or a reference to bones. Sometimes, it follows a question about how I made the transition from nursing to anthropology. In reply to the latter, I say that nursing is a form of applied medical anthropology and that I am still a nurse.

  4. Ellen Block permalink
    February 8, 2010 5:52 pm

    I usually say something along the lines of “intersections of health and culture” and give an example if I can.

  5. February 9, 2010 1:44 am

    As an anthropologist in general, I’ve frequently experienced “mistaken identity.” It seems most people think of anthropology as synonymous with archaeology, which many more people don’t understand as distinct from paleontology. So in nearly every discussion I have w/ someone who is unfamiliar with what I do, I first have to explain that archaeologists aren’t paleontologists (then explain the difference) and that all archaeologists are anthropologists, but all anthropologists are not archaeologists. At that point, I often fear I’ve already become too long winded without actually really explaining what I do, so I try to launch into a brief discussion of the four fields and, if I’m getting to medical anthropology in the conversation, I’ll say that it can play off of all four fields depending on what you’re interested in.

    I’m getting read to start grad school in the fall, and whenever people ask me what I’m going to study, I immediately cringe a little bit. I’m never really sure how to best tailor my answer to my audience. Plus, it’s really kind of hard to find a way to describe medical anthropology that feels like it does justice to its myriad uses. Generally, I try to briefly explain anthropology as I did above, and then say that medical anthropology itself is a pretty expansive subject that is difficult to define in singular terms but, that being said, it looks broadly at the way health, healthcare delivery and healthcare receipt interact with our cultures and vice versa.

    I’ve found that people in general seem to get it more when I explain my specific interests, specific projects I’ve done, or the types of projects I hope to do. But, in order to do that, the person generally has to be interested enough in finding out what medical anthropology is (or in me/what I’m doing with my life,) to actually want to have a conversation about it. If they aren’t that interested, they often seem more confused and even LESS interested after my basic explanation.

    I think a really critical part of medical anthropology IS its shared ideas, theoretical approaches and methodologies. In many ways it seems to me as a quintessential “holistic” field of study. It doesn’t matter if we have our own identity especially since I think it’s impossible for the field to give up it’s shared identity. The shared identity is a critical aspect of medical anthropology. That being said, a solid definition, if possible would be really helpful. I’m not sure it is possible though, medical anthropologists just do so many different things!

  6. anthrodoc permalink
    March 1, 2010 4:14 pm

    In reading the responses that my fellow medical anthropolgists have expressed, I think as a profession it has become necessary to mainstream our research for the benefit of humankind!!
    I welcome responses to my thoughts about the future of medical anthropology.
    I also have a blog on word press if you prefer to answer directly.

  7. June 25, 2010 1:58 pm

    Since I introduce myself as a medical Seitensprung anthropologist on the radio, I am sometimes called upon to explain what that is, in very simple terms and little time. I usually point out that anthropology is the study of human beings (simple enough, even though it glosses an awful lot and doesn’t give the primates much room). Then I Seitensprung say that medical anthropologists are interested in how Affäre people’s beliefs and behaviors influence their health. Then if there’s time, I acknowledge that that can cover a lot of territory, from bones (very old) to hospitals (new).
    I’ll be watching for other simple Seitensprung Kontakte definitions I can use in public!

  8. Dave Beine permalink
    March 27, 2011 7:22 am

    I once gave a seminar at UCSD School of Medicine entitled “Where Culture Meets Medicine.” This is the layman’s answer I often use to try to explain medical anthropology.

  9. January 10, 2013 12:57 pm

    Wow totally an inspirational video and post i have seen since morning, someone will definitely gonna learn something from these post !

    Medicare

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