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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
9 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

  4. June 8, 2015 4:10 pm

    To speak the truth, medical anthropology can be played an important role in health sector to emancipate health problem and for positive changes among the mass people. From the view point of anthropology medical anthropology’s knowledge have to be used in the country for public awareness.

  5. June 8, 2015 4:18 pm

    As a student of anthropology I seriously trust that medical anthropology can easily be success in its program at the rural areas and to the indigenous communities for growing their awareness shortly. In the context of Bangladesh I have observed that social awareness program should be conducted among the people more and more for focusing the issues of medical anthropology. I strongly recommend for taking such a program for health service in order to remove the superstition that are still existing in many communities.

  6. June 14, 2015 11:44 pm

    When I was working in World Vision Bangladesh sine the Period July 7,2007 to March 24, 2011 as a Project Officer of Livelihood Security Project I observed that both mainstream Bangali community and the Indigenous communities were actively participated in heath session like on PRA on WATSAN (Water and Sanitation), WATSAN training,There was a vast scope for me to apply the medical anthropology among the peoples. They also changed their BCC (Behavioral Change Communication) in their everyday life settings through the awareness of health knowledge.To speak the truth, livelihood is the central part of life. Education, health and economic development activities like IGA (Income Generating Activities) are closely connected with livelihood.Actually, the working scopes of medical anthropology is vast for knowing and applying.

  7. August 11, 2015 6:28 pm

    Knowledge of medical anthropology is an important issue for social service in health sector. I hope this knowledge can be more used in many indigenous society.


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