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