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Lecture 1

ANTHROP 3HI3 Lecture Notes - Lecture 1: Medical Anthropology, Religious Studies, Biological Anthropology

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Dr. Rebecca Plett

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Unit 1: Anthropologies of medicine
Introduction to medical anthropology
Medical anthropologies are interested in:
o How illness is understood and experienced, theorized about, and treated
o How groups of people deal with life events like birth, illness, and death
We all experience these events in our lives
o How people conceptualize healing and those that heal
How do we understanding health, or well-being
Illness and healing are at the nexus of medicine and religion and must be understood in their
cultural contexts
o Why do some people believe in witchcraft, magic?
o Illness and healing bring together medicine and religion
Studies of the healing rituals of small-scale societies and indigenous healing specialists across
Africa, the Pacific, and the Americas are sources that medical anthropology drew from
o These sources described medicine's role in providing explanations for mysterious events,
and healing as a social process
E.g., Evans Pritchard picture
o Built these shelters to store their grains
o The explanation for collapsing of the shelters was witchcraft
o It was termites however they used witchcraft to describe a mysterious event just like using
witchcraft to describe illness
Attempts to explain or generalize about how diseases are caused or treated showed the
relationship between medicine and religion:
o Myth and worldview help to shape conceptions of the body and its place in nature
Myths can tell us about the creation of humans and body
o Healing can take the form of ritual
Ritual often a religious practice
o Healers as specialists whose role might overlap with shaman or priest
o Illness may be caused by magic, witchcraft or spirit possession
Development of a subdiscipline
As a subdiscipline, medical anthropology started out as the comparative study of medical systems
o Illness is understood to be caused by something and that causation will lead to seeking
medical treatment
Moved to more clinical settings and engaged with theoretical debates of the time: critical theory,
post-structuralism, gender studies, ethics, Marxism, and physical and biological anthropology
Medical anthropology has a wide range of orientations, and foci of analysis:
o Narratives, bodies, and experience:
Interpretive and meaning-centred; linking cultural or symbolic studies to illness and
What symbolic thought can be used to understand healing
o Biopolitics, sociality and governmentality:
Using a Marxist lens to look at structures of power and their effects on health
o Global health:
Medicine as an applied practice of human rights and social justice
o Postcolonialism:
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