Relationship Between Anthropology & Medicine Essay

Medical Anthropology

In his article entitled “Rethinking Medical Anthropology: How Anthropology is Failing Medicine,” Colin P. Hemmings shares many fascinating insights on the connections between anthropology and medicine. It’s clear that efforts have been made to establish commonalities between the anthropological and medical fields.

The primary purpose of this is to help doctors and other healthcare professionals advance the therapeutic techniques they use on patients. This has been an ongoing process since the 1960s, which saw the introduction of medical anthropology as an academic sub-discipline (Hemmings, “Rethinking Medical Anthropology: How Anthropology is Failing Medicine,” pg. 91).

Some healthcare professionals and scholars have been highly skeptical of the value of anthropology in the medical setting. Whether skeptical or hopeful of the validity of anthropology, both sides of the argument agree, ironically enough, that they cannot agree on neither the definition nor the purpose of medical anthropology. Hemmings goes on to illustrate that many doctors have strived to efficiently incorporate anthropology into their medical practice, but such attempts have thus far been in vain. This failure in efficiency is mainly attributable to the lack of care that medical and clinical anthropologists have over whether doctors and/or patients believe anthropology to be a useful tool in medicine.

Another factor as to why the incorporation of anthropology in the medical setting has failed is that many anthropologists are adamantly opposed to both aiding doctors in using, or allowing them to use, anthropology to innovate medical treatments. Collaboration between different fields of study is critical to the further evolution of medical treatments and, by extension, the healing and recovery of patients. Upon surface level parsing of this text, the first conclusion that one may come to is that the medical community is lending a helping hand to anthropologists to better streamline medicinal operations. However, a deeper, more critical analysis of this text will lead to questioning the anthropological field as to the failure of the incorporation of its subject of study in the medical world.

This article contains many ideas and statements that can make it a challenge to adequately understand the issues surrounding the tense relationship between anthropology and medicine. One such challenging idea is the need of anthropology in the medical setting. People in the anthropological field believe that their studies are critical to improving the delivery of medical treatments to patients. It has been argued that many medical failures are due to the inability of doctors and other healthcare professionals to understand the lay beliefs of their patients. They incorrectly assume that their patients will follow their advice (Littlewood, “From Disease to Illness and Back Again,” Lancet, vol. 337, pg. 1013-1016).

These failures are further exacerbated by poor communication between doctors and patients, and the disparity between their respective expectations (Kleinman, “Concepts and a Model for the Comparison of Medical Systems as Cultural Systems,” Social Science and Medicine, vol. 12, pg. 85-93). Adding on to that, the anthropological community firmly believes that these lay beliefs are critical to establishing how and when a patient chooses to disclose his/her/their respective medical issues, in addition to adversely affecting the patient’s compliance with their doctor’s medical advice.

However, the article does not specifically discuss whether the anthropological community has helped to improve communication between patients and doctors which, in turn, would lead to a more efficient and therapeutic healing process for patients. This brings up the question of whether the anthropological field is content to merely criticize modern medicinal practices, or is actively working on guiding the discussion on these issues and finding answers. Another challenging idea in the text is the avoidance of responsibility from the anthropological community as to why anthropology has not yet been effectively incorporated in medical practices.

Anthropologists like to claim a moral high ground, boasting a self-proclaimed “holistic” perspective in medical research. However, they differ from doctors in that they are detached from medical practice, only providing information, and avoid the need to make any hard choices and take responsibility for the outcomes of those choices (Johnson, “Critical Praxis Beyond the Ivory Tower: A Critical Commentary,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 1, pg. 107-110).

Additionally, they use their self-proclaimed “holistic perspective” as an excuse to avoid attempting any manner of focused, short-term research that is critically required by primary health care (Pelto & Pelto, “Developing Applied Medical Anthropology in Third World Countries: Problems and Actions,” Social Science and Medicine, vol. 35, no. 11, pg. 1389).

Moreover, they tend to relish being critics and analysts without an inclination of applying their ideas in a practical setting (Ritenbaugh, “Ruminations On: A Medical Anthropologist’s Ruminations on NIH Funding,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 2, pg. 148). Even when their ideas are applied in a practical setting, their ideas may be seen as “esoteric and besides the point,” as noted by one anthropologist who had worked with doctors for three years (Browner, “On the Medicalisation of Medical Anthropology,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 2, pg. 136). T

his indicates the necessity for a radical change in medical anthropological methodology before they can begin to attempt to change the medical field for the better. Anthropologists should abandon the “holier than thou” mindset when comparing themselves to others, and exercise more pragmatism regarding “absolute truth, knowledge, and certainty.” That will allow for a greater willingness to incorporate many different ideas for more efficient medical practices (Hemmings, pg. 100).

In addition to the theoretical challenges in exploring the relationship between anthropology and medicine, there are informational challenges as well. One such difficulty is the reliability of the data cited in the article. Many statistical sources are referenced, but many of them used sample sizes that were too small to be statistically significant to this topic. Another difficulty is finding reliable academic sources. There are loads of different information sources cited all over the Internet, but many of them are not linked to reputable academic sources that are applicable to the topic in question.

Works Cited:

Browner, C. H. “On the Medicalization of Medical Anthropology.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 2, 1999, pp. 135–140. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Hemmings, Colin P. “Rethinking Medical Anthropology: How Anthropology Is Failing Medicine.” Anthropology & Medicine, vol. 12, no. 2, 2005, pp. 91–103., doi:10.1080/13648470500139841.

Johnson, Thomas M. “Critical Praxis beyond the Ivory Tower: A Critical Commentary.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 1, 1995, pp. 107–110., doi:10.1525/maq.1995.9.1.02a00070.

Kleinman, Arthur. “Concepts and a Model for the Comparison of Medical Systems as Cultural Systems.” Social Science & Medicine. Part B: Medical Anthropology, vol. 12, 1978, pp. 85–93., doi:10.1016/0160-7987(78)90014-5.

Littlewood, Roland. “From Disease to Illness and Back Again.” The Lancet, vol. 337, no. 8748, 1991, pp. 1013–1016., doi:10.1016/0140-6736(91)92668-r.

Pelto, Pertti J., and Gretel H. Pelto. “Developing Applied Medical Anthropology in Third World Countries: Problems and Actions.” Social Science & Medicine, vol. 35, no. 11, 1992, pp. 1389–1395., doi:10.1016/0277-9536(92)90042-o.

Ritenbaugh, Cheryl. “Ruminations on “A Medical Anthropologists Ruminations on NIH Funding.”Medical Anthropology Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 2, 1992, pp. 148–151., doi:10.1525/maq.1992.6.2.02a00050.

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