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Disease, Illness and Healing
Disease and Illness
• Disease: is a biological health problem that is
objective and universal.
(Examples: Cancer, AIDS/HIV, “Super bugs”
and etc.)
• Illness: is the culturally shaped perception and
experiences of a health problem.
(Examples: How to treat certain illnesses, reasons for
contracting the illness, views on quarantine and etc.)
Western Biomedicine (WBM)
• Western Biomedicine (WBM): A healing approach based
on modern Western science that emphasizes technology for
diagnosing and treating health problems related to the human
body, is an ethno-medical system too.
• Medical Anthropologists study WBM as an ethno-medical
system looking at the bond between Western culture(s) and
its ever growing science based medical system.
• Globalization has made WBM grow in popularity throughout
Europe, USA, India and South America.
Is the cross-cultural study of health systems.
• A individual health system encompasses several areas includingperceptions, classifications of health problems, prevention measures,
diagnosis, healing (magical, religious, scientific, healing substances),
and healers.
• Ethno-medicine has expanded its research focus by examining topics
such as- perceptions of the body, culture and disability, and change in
indigenous or “traditional” healing systems, as a result of
• ***Culture-specific syndrome: A collection of signs and
symptoms that is restricted to a particular culture or a limited
number of cultures. (An example ***Susto: fright/shock disease is an illness
found among people of Spanish, Portuguese and Latino descent wherever they live.
Symptoms include back pain, fatigue, weakness, nightmares and lack of appetite. Many
individuals believe that Susto is brought on by the lose of a loved one or by having a
terrible accident.)
• Somatization: The process through which the body absorbs social
stress and manifests symptoms of suffering.
• Ethno-etiology: A culturally specific causal
explanation for health problems and suffering.
• Structural suffering: Human health problems caused
by such economic and political factors as war,
famine, terrorism, forced migration and poverty.
• Community healing: Healing that emphasizes the
social context as a key component and that is carried
out within the public domain.
• Humoral Healing: healing that emphasizes balance
among natural elements within the body.
• Shamans/shamankas: a male and female
healer, respectively.
– ***Shamans mediate between humans and the
spirit world.
– In different cultures, healing specialists come in
many forms including--Midwives, bone setters,
Herbalists, general practitioners, psychiatrists,
nurses, acupuncturists, chiropractors, dentists,
and hospice care givers.
– Some healing roles may have higher status and
more power and may receive higher pay than
Healing Substances
• ***Phytotherapy: Healing through the use of plants.
– The Andean culture(s) have for thousands of years used the coca
leaves for rituals, mask hunger, pains, and in combating the cold. It has
also been used to treat stomach problems, sprains, swelling, and
– Herbalists may combine the leaves of the coca plant with different
herbs and roots for maté.
Cross-culturally, people know about and use many different
plants for a wide range of health problems, including
gastrointestinal problems, skin problems, wounds, sores,
pain relief, infertility, fatigue, and altitude sickness.
• Increasing awareness of the range of potentially useful plants
worldwide provides a strong incentive for protecting the
world’s cultural diversity.
3 Theoretical Approaches
• Ecological/epidemiological approach: An approach within medical
anthropology that considers how aspects of the natural environment
interact to cause illness.
– Historical trauma: the intergenerational transfer of the detrimental effects of
colonialism from parents to children.
• Interpretivist Approach: An approach within medical anthropology where
health systems are studied as systems of meaning. Interpretivist research
examines how different cultures label, describe, and experience illness and
how healing systems offer meaningful responses to individual and
communal distress. (example: “The Placebo effect”)
• Critical Medical Anthropology: An approach within medical anthropology
involving the analysis of how economic and political structures shape
people’s health status, their access to health care, and the prevailing medical
systems that exist in relation to them.
– Medicalization: The labeling of a particular issue or problem as medical and
requiring medical treatment when, in fact, that issue or problem is economic or
Reactionary Medicine
• Disease of Development: A health problem
caused or increased by economic development
activities that have detrimental effects on the
environment and people’s relationship with it.
• ***Medical Pluralism: The existence of more
than one health system in a culture; also, a
government policy to promote the integration of
local healing systems into biomedical practice.
• ***Applied medical anthropology: The
application of anthropological knowledge to
furthering the goals of health-care providers.