Medical anthropology is a subfield of cultural anthropology that combines ideas from biological and cultural anthropology to help explain human health and disease. It is one of anthropology’s fastest-growing research fields. Some consider it to be a sub-discipline of applied anthropology, the fifth (and sometimes overlooked) anthropological sub-discipline. In this situation, the anthropologist uses anthropological study options and findings to determine, classify, and find responses to current problems (Gezen, 2014). Applied anthropologists are found in many areas of work, including public health, economic development, forensics, linguistics, and human rights, in both rural and urban settings across the globe. For decades, anthropologists have been studying the interaction of cultural values and norms on health-related issues. In recent years, Western medical practitioners are beginning to use anthropological data to better understand their multicultural patients’ responses to “modern” health care practices.
Concepts, such as illness and health can be hard to define precisely. Part of the explanation behind this is they encapsulate esteem judgments and are established in metaphor. The exact importance of terms like health, healing and wholeness are prone to stay subtle, because the perplexing openness of the standpoint picked up alone opposes religion and science (Glazier & Hallin, 2010). The essential reason for Cross-Cultural Anthropology is that measurable correlations can be utilized to find attributes shared among societies and produce thoughts regarding social universals. Anthropologists make speculations and counsel information into request to draw factual connections about the connections among certain social cultures.
Throughout the world, different systems use various cultures to describe the meaning and response to illness. In this case, Anthropologist who use this study to get symbolic meanings use the interpretive approach to medical anthropology (Glazier & Hallin, 2010). The method sometimes looks like an emic perspective that attempts to understand disease and health relative to a specific culture. For instance, when anthropologists use the emic approach, they know the nature of illness from an inner perspective instead of an outside viewpoint. Through the culture of emic perspective, anthropologists have a better understanding of the notion of ‘embodied personhood.’ This can also be defined as the relationship between cultural practices and beliefs in connection with illness and health to the sentiment of the human body (Gezen, 2014). In other words, this is the primary focus of the anthropologist because of using the interpretive.
The use of culture also has different substances for healing. Some of them rely on drugs to initiate some healing while others depend on healers such as shamans to gain full health. Most instances, people depend on both medical syncretism and pluralism. Medical pluralism, in this case, is the employment of many medical systems or by use of complementary, alternative and conventional medicine. Other medical syncretism uses the fusion of both biomedical and traditional practices. Therefore, it is important to note that the state of healing accomplished in one culture may vary to the other due to the different perspective as well as how the substance affects the individual. For example, there is a difference between the drugs used for recreation and healing. Some cultures, on the other hand, believe when a specific drug is used on a person, they reach a heightened state where they begin to feel the healing. In cultural cultures, this state is only used for pure enjoyment (Glazier & Hallin, 2010).
The primary focus of medical anthropology is how the politics and economy shape its overall status, particularly on the human health. Critical medical anthropology, in this case, addresses the differences between the quality of care and health in the presence of the social inequalities. Based on ethnicity, gender, class, and race, the social divisions can influence the access to susceptibility and healthcare to disease (Gezen, 2014). The medical anthropology also focuses on the social factors that prevail a particular illness and methods of preventing it. A study done in 1998 by Merrill singer (a medical anthropologist) to the Hispanic children discovered that hunger and food insecurity were prevailing conditions that encouraged different diseases. Singer also determined the risk factors brought by hunger and food security to push the policymakers to improve on public health policy as well as food programs (Singer, 2010). Therefore, the critical medical anthropologist works hard to critique the bio-medical practices because they decrease the health challenges such as malnutrition, hunger, and disease with the aim of promoting wellness (Singer, 2010).
Defining Health and Illness
To understand the anthropological approach to health and illness, it is necessary to know the definitions of terms related to the topics. Health definitions, in this case, are imbued with ethical, political and moral implications. As proposed by WHO (world health organization), they broadly defined health as the overall sense of being well. In this criteria, the WHO stated that the world’s population has a very small percentage of people who are healthy (Glazier & Hallin, 2010).
The Concepts of Disease and Illness
A disease is a condition caused by a pathogen, e.g., bacterium, parasite, or virus, which has been scientifically verified; it is something that can be objectively measured. These can vary by group (e.g., ethnicity and socioeconomic status), geography, incidence, and severity. Illness is a feeling or perception of not being healthy. Illness may be caused by disease, but it can also be caused by psychological or spiritual factors and tied to an individual’s worldview. Health systems include cultural perceptions and classification of health-related issues, healing practices, diagnosis, prevention, and healers (Miller, 2011).
Theoretical Approaches
Anthropologists George Foster and Barbara Anderson, who together with Khwaja Hassan established the field of medical anthropology, identified three disease theory systems that explain illness:
Personality disease theory: Illness is due to the action of an agent such as a witch, sorcerer, or supernatural entity, e.g., ancestor spirit or ghost. Healers must use supernatural means to learn the cause and to help cure illness (Foster et al., 2010).
Emotional disease theory: Illness is due to an adverse emotional experience. For many Latin Americans, anxiety or fright may cause lethargy and distraction, an illness called susto. Psychotherapists are interested in the role emotions play in physical health (Foster et al., 2010).
Naturalistic theory: Illness is due to an impersonal factor, e.g., pathogen, malnutrition, obstruction (e.g., kidney stone), or organic deterioration (e.g., heart failure). The naturalistic theory has its origins in the work of Hippocrates and dominates the pedagogy of modern medical schools (Foster et al., 2010).
Barbara Miller (2011) outlines three theoretical approaches that attempt to understand health systems:
Ecological/Epidemiological Approach: This plan aims to produce data that can be used by public health programs by focusing how the interaction of the natural environment and culture can cause health problems and influence their spread through a population.
Interpretive Approach: Drawing on the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the interpretive approach examines how community and individual distress is alleviated through healing systems and how illness is defined and experienced. The assumption is that the healing mode provides meaning for suffering.
Critical Medical Anthropology: Critical medical anthropologists examine how health systems are impacted by structural elements, e.g., social inequality, political economy, global media, etc. (Miller, 2011).
Ethno Medicine
The cross-cultural study of health systems is called ethno medicine. It goes beyond the examination of health systems to look at such things as the impact of globalization on the health system as well as cultural concepts of the body and disability and the use of plants and animals within the health system. Early ethno medicine studies focused on the health systems of indigenous peoples across the globe. More recently Western biomedical practices are identified as an ethno medicine and included in the scope of ethno medicine studies (Gezen, 2014).
All people try to understand the cause of illness and disease. The cross-cultural study of specific causal explanations for health-related problems is called ethno-etiology (Gezen, 2014). Ethno-etiological studies of migraines demonstrate that in the Bahia area of Brazil, headaches the causal explanation of headaches is certain types of winds. In the U.S., biomedical explanations for migraines are sensitivity to certain chemicals, emotional stress, food preservatives, excessive caffeine, skipping meals, menstrual periods, changes in sleep patterns, changing weather conditions, and numerous medical conditions such as hypertension, asthma, and chronic fatigue syndrome (Gezen, 2014).
Structural suffering, or social suffering resulting from poverty, famine, conflict, and forced migration, is a focus of ethno medicine and medical anthropology in general. Frequently, structural distress is related to culture-bound syndromes, which are psychopathologies (suite of signs and symptoms) restricted to specific cultural environments (Martin, 2012). Witiko is a culture-bound syndrome found among indigenous peoples of Canada. The symptoms include an aversion to food accompanied by depression and anxiety. The witiko spirit, which is a giant human-eating monster, eventually possesses the inflicted individual causing the person to acts of cannibalism and homicide. Studies indicate that witiko is an extreme form of starvation anxiety (Martin, 2012). Other examples of culture-bound syndromes that are not necessarily to structural suffering include:
Amok afflicts males in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. The term means ‘to engage furiously in battle.’ Symptoms include wild, aggressive behavior. The inflicted first withdraws or broods then attempts to kill or hurt another person until they are restrained, exhausted, or killed. The condition is caused by loss of either social or economic status, a loved one, or a real or perceived insult (Gomez, 2014). Anorexia nervosa is a culture-bound syndrome associated with affluent industrial societies. It is an eating disorder characterized by self-starvation. Affecting primarily women, anorexia nervosa is associated with cultures that place excessive value on female thinness. Contributing factors include over-controlling parents and socially, economically upwardly mobile family, early onset of puberty, tallness, low self-esteem, depression, and some illnesses like juvenile diabetes.
Hwa-Byung, meaning fire disease, occurs in Korea. Eastern medicine relates its cause to an imbalance between yin (negative force) and yang (positive effect) or between ki (vital energy) and Hwa (illness with properties of fire), (Park, 2013). Western biomedicine attributes it to incomplete suppressed anger or projection of rage into the body. Symptoms include feelings of frustration, anxiety, guilt, fear, humiliation, hatred, depression, and disappointment. Physical manifestations are many, including palpitations, indigestion, dizziness, nausea, constipation, pain, insomnia, and more. Individuals suffering from Hwa-Byung may be abnormally talkative, short-tempered, absent-minded, paranoid, and have suicidal thoughts (Park, 2013).
Latah has been found predominantly in Malaysia, but similar syndromes occur in the Philippines (mali-mali), Burma (yaun), and among indigenous peoples in Siberia (myriachif) and Japan (IMO). Caused by a sudden shock, e.g., death of a loved one, or fright, the individual enters a dissociative, highly suggestible state where they readily follow the commands of others (Legerski, 2016). They often suffer from echolalia when they compulsively repeat what others say, or echopraxia when they mimic the actions of others. Socially inappropriate behaviors are familiar with this syndrome, including touching or hitting others, saying sexually explicit things, and singing out loud (Legerski, 2016).
Healing & Healers
In the Western biomedical approach to healing, the private cure is the norm; often only the patient and the professional health practitioner(s) is/are in the room. In other health systems, community healing or humoral healing are common. The community healing approach considers social context critical for the healing process. Healing practices take place in front of the whole community and often involve their participation (Miller, 2011). One example is the healing dance of Ju/hoansi foragers of the Kalahari. Several times a month, the healing dance is performed to draw on the collective energy of the participants. Men, and sometimes women, dance around a circle of women who sit around a fire, clapping and singing. Healers draw on the spiritual energy of the dancers and singers to enhance their consciousness. In this period, enhanced healers consciously healed those in need (Miller, 2011).
The humoral healing system is a philosophic center that creates the idea that coolness and heat imbalances the body to be vulnerable to disease. When the environment is freezing, it causes death particularly in some areas like Indian, China, and some Islamic cultures. Areas like Malaysia and Orang Asil are known to have extreme heat as its culprit (Julie, 2016). Food and drugs are used to offset these imbalances. Healing is generally done through a combination of informal methods, e.g., self-diagnosis and treatment, and formal treatment using a healing specialist. There are many different types of healing specialists:
Shamans and shmankas,
Psychiatrists and psychologists, and
Medical anthropology as elaborated in the essay is the ability to distinguish different forms of healing various disease. The system also discussed in the article goes into details by defining the true meaning of every condition and how it affects every change. Medical anthropology also highlights how the systems are used to address health and illness situations in different places.
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Singer, Merill. (2010). “Migraines and Headaches.” WebMD. Accessed November 17, 2017.

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