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What is Medical Anthropology, Anyway?

December 4, 2009

The information below is from the ‘What is Medical Anthropology‘ page on the SMA Website, and you can start by posting your comments to answer the questions: What is missing?  What else could we add?  How have things changed?  Etc. Then follow up in the dialogue as specific people address these and other questions related to the origins, scope, and future of the discipline of medical anthropology.

What is medical anthropology?

  • Medical Anthropology is a subfield of anthropology that draws upon social, cultural, biological, and linguistic anthropology to better understand those factors which influence health and well being (broadly defined), the experience and distribution of illness, the prevention and treatment of sickness, healing processes, the social relations of therapy management, and the cultural importance and utilization of pluralistic medical systems. The discipline of medical anthropology draws upon many different theoretical approaches. It is as attentive to popular health culture as bioscientific epidemiology, and the social construction of knowledge and politics of science as scientific discovery and hypothesis testing. Medical anthropologists examine how the health of individuals, larger social formations, and the environment are affected by interrelationships between humans and other species; cultural norms and social institutions; micro and macro politics; and forces of globalization as each of these affects local worlds.

Medical anthropologists study such issues as:

    • Health ramifications of ecological “adaptation and maladaptation”
    • Popular health culture and domestic health care practices
    • Local interpretations of bodily processes
    • Changing body projects and valued bodily attributes
    • Perceptions of risk, vulnerability and responsibility for illness and health care
    • Risk and protective dimensions of human behavior, cultural norms and social institutions
    • Preventative health and harm reduction practices
    • The experience of illness and the social relations of sickness
    • The range of factors driving health, nutrition and health care transitions
    • Ethnomedicine, pluralistic healing modalities, and healing processes
    • The social organization of clinical interactions
    • The cultural and historical conditions shaping medical practices and policies
    • Medical practices in the context of modernity, colonial, and post-colonial social formations
    • The use and interpretation of pharmaceuticals and forms of biotechnology
    • The commercialization and commodification of health and medicine
    • Disease distribution and health disparity
    • Differential use and availability of government and private health care resources
    • The political economy of health care provision.
    • The political ecology of infectious and vector borne diseases, chronic diseases and states of malnutrition, and violence
    • The possibilities for a critically engaged yet clinically relevant application of anthropology
5 Comments leave one →
  1. karen flores permalink
    May 6, 2011 1:41 am

    I`m a student of medicine in Mexico and i just want to say about Medical Anthropology:
    it is true that medical anthropology, and sociocultural anthropology more generally, spans or links up the humanities and social sciences. Of course, in practice many individual scholars deliberately place themselves somewhere specific on this continuum — as more of a humanities or soc sci type — although I think this typology is actually quite limiting. My sense is that history occupies a similar disciplinary position — the only difference is that it has traditionally been lumped with the humanities.

  2. May 6, 2011 2:37 am


    …The define the anthropology as the study holistic of human being, I can try to explain to medical anthropology as I see it, where medical anthropology is a means to examine and understand health. Through of a study bio-psycho-socio-cultural, which is interested in health and healing in all its various forms. For example, it may be sociocultural.- in how people treat and illness experience and local knowledge they possess.

  3. erich kronberger permalink
    December 24, 2012 10:35 pm

    medical anthropology suggest you study anthropological medicine thanks


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