Medical Anthropology | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Medical Anthropology

Medical anthropology is the study of interactions between culture and health. Medical anthropologists are interested in how a person's cultural background influences his or her experiences with health, illness and medical systems.

Anthropology, Medical

Medical anthropology is the study of interactions between culture and health. Medical anthropologists are interested in how a person's cultural background influences his or her experiences with health, illness and medical systems. Related to this is understanding how cross-cultural encounters between western biomedical approaches to health and health care and those of vulnerable minority, immigrant and indigenous populations affect health, disease, illness, suffering and healing. Medical anthropologists employ a modern view of culture as fluid, hybridized (mixed) and globalized (interconnected), rather than the antiquated notion of culture as static and stable. Medical anthropologists understand that culture occurs within, and is inseparable from, geographic, historical, political, social and economic contexts.

Medical anthropology has its roots in the work of early ethnographers such as W.H.R. Rivers (1864-1922), who collected information on medical systems as part of their ethnographic fieldwork. The study of health and medicine from an anthropological perspective was common during the twentieth century, but the discipline of medical anthropology was not labelled as such until the 1960s. Over the last century medical anthropology has focused on different subjects including ethnomedicine (traditional medicines); international and public health programs; ecological, biological and socio-cultural epidemiology; symbolic systems and hermeneutics (the study of interpretation); clinical systems and patient care; political-economy of health; colonialism and post-colonialism and health; and cultural competency and sensitivity.

Although foci for study and theoretical approaches have changed over the years, medical anthropology has consistently approached the study of health using ethnographic methods; it has been community-based, applied and action-oriented. Most recently medical anthropologists have been oriented towards critical medical anthropology and critical interpretive anthropology. Both seek to understand the impact of political and economic power relations on health and to advocate for changes to policy (locally, nationally and internationally) to improve the health of vulnerable and powerless populations around the world and at home. Specifically, the majority of Canadian medical anthropologists are applying critical theory to the study of indigenous health and healing; bioscience, biotechnology and biomedicine; international health care, cultural sensitivity and patient care; and public health discourse such as risk, harm reduction and health promotion in national and international contexts.

Medical anthropology in Canada is greatly influenced by theorists in Europe and the United States as well as national and international social concerns. As such, Canadian medical anthropology is eclectic and has distinct anglophone and francophone traditions. The majority of medical anthropologists in Canada hold their primary appointments outside of anthropology departments. They are mostly employed by faculties of medicine, public health and community health, government and non-governmental organizations, private industry and consulting companies.

Canadian medical anthropologists have made significant contributions to the discipline in the areas of (1) indigenous health, (2) culture and health care and (3) bioscience. Important advances in our understandings of concepts of health and healing within political, historical, environmental and economic contexts for indigenous populations in Canada have been produced by Canadian medical anthropologists such as Naomi Adelson, James Waldram and Wayne Warry. Seminal work critiquing western biomedical systems aimed at improving cultural understandings of health and illness has been produced by Canadian medical anthropologist Margaret Lock. And finally, several Canadian medical anthropologists have contributed to the social and biomedical debates concerning the ethical application of bioscience and technology, mostly through a 2003 publication titled Remaking Life and Death: Toward an Anthropology of the Biosciences.

Many Canadian universities offer programs of study in medical anthropology. The University of Toronto offers an undergraduate specialist program in medical anthropology and most other anthropology departments offer undergraduate courses in this field. Some universities, such as the University of Toronto, McGill University and the University of British Columbia, offer specialized graduate programs in medical anthropology. McMaster University has a program in the "anthropology of health," which places medical anthropology with fields such as physical anthropology, forensic anthropology, historical demography and ancient DNA studies. Many graduate programs in anthropology in Canada offer graduate courses and supervision in medical anthropology even without having designated specialized programs. Such is the case at the University of Manitoba, Memorial University and Trent University.

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