An Introduction to Medical Anthropology

Studying the intersections of culture, health, and illness

Illustrated series of various medical interactions and procedures

mathisworks / Getty Images

Medical anthropology is a field of anthropology focused on the relationship between health, illness, and culture. Beliefs and practices about health vary across different cultures and are influenced by social, religious, political, historical, and economic factors. Medical anthropologists use anthropological theories and methods to generate unique insights into how different cultural groups around the world experience, interpret, and respond to questions of health, illness, and wellness.

Medical anthropologists study a wide array of topics. Specific questions include:

  • How does a particular culture define health or illness?
  • How might a diagnosis or condition be interpreted by different cultures?
  • What are the roles of doctors, shamans, or alternative health practitioners?
  • Why do certain groups experience better or worse health outcomes, or higher prevalence of certain diseases?
  • What is the connect between health, happiness, and stress?
  • How are different conditions stigmatized or even celebrated in specific cultural contexts?

In addition, medical anthropologists study the factors that affect or are affected by the distribution of illness, and are also closely attuned to questions of inequality, power, and health.

History of the Field

Medical anthropology emerged as a formal area of study in the mid-20th century. Its roots are in cultural anthropology, and it extends that subfield’s focus on social and cultural worlds to topics relating specifically to health, illness, and wellness.

Like cultural anthropologists, medical anthropologists typically use ethnography – or ethnographic methods – to conduct research and gather data. Ethnography is a qualitative research method that involves full immersion in the community being studied. The ethnographer (i.e., the anthropologist) lives, works, and observes daily life in this distinctive cultural space, which is called the field site.

Medical anthropology grew increasingly important after World War II, when anthropologists began to formalize the process of applying ethnographic methods and theories to questions of health around the world. This was a time of widespread international development and humanitarian efforts aimed at bringing modern technologies and resources to countries in the global South. Anthropologists proved particularly useful for health-based initiatives, using their unique skills of cultural analysis to help develop programs tailored to local practices and belief systems. Specific campaigns focused on sanitation, infectious disease control, and nutrition.

Key Concepts and Methods

Medical anthropology’s approach to ethnography has changed since the field’s early days, thanks in large part to the growth of globalization and the emergence of new communication technologies. While the popular image of anthropologists involves living in remote villages in far-off lands, contemporary anthropologists conduct research in a variety of field sites ranging from urban centers to rural hamlets, and even in social media communities. Some also incorporate quantitative data into their ethnographic work.

Some anthropologists now design multi-sited studies, for which they conduct ethnographic fieldwork in different field sites.

These might include comparative studies of health care in rural versus urban spaces in the same country, or combine traditional in-person fieldwork living in a particular place with digital research of social media communities. Some anthropologists even work in multiple countries around the world for a single project. Together, these new possibilities for fieldwork and field sites have broadened the scope of anthropological research, enabling scholars to better study life in a globalized world.

Medical anthropologists use their evolving methodologies to examine key concepts, including:

  • Health disparities: the differences in the distribution of health outcomes or disease prevalence across groups
  • Global health: the study of health across the globe
  • Ethnomedicine: the comparative study of traditional medicine practices in different cultures
  • Cultural relativism: the theory that all cultures must be considered on their own terms, not as superior or inferior to others.

What Do Medical Anthropologists Study? 

Medical anthropologists work to solve a variety of problems. For instance, some researchers focus on health equity and health disparities, trying to explain why certain communities have better or worse health outcomes than others. Others might ask how a particular health condition, such as Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia, is experienced in localized contexts around the globe.

Medical anthropologists can be divided into two general groups: academic and applied. Academic medical anthropologists work within university systems, specializing in research, writing, and/or teaching. In contrast, applied medical anthropologists often work outside of university settings. They can be found in hospitals, medical schools, public health programs, and in nonprofit or international non-governmental organizations. While academic anthropologists often have more open-ended research agendas, applied practitioners are typically part of a team trying to solve or generate insights into a specific problem or question.

Today, key research areas include medical technologies, genetics and genomics, bioethics, disability studies, health tourism, gender-based violence, infectious disease outbreaks, substance abuse, and more.

Ethical Considerations

Both academic and applied anthropologists face similar ethical considerations, which are typically overseen by their universities, funders, or other governing organizations.

Institutional review boards were established in the U.S. in the 1970s to ensure ethical compliance for research involving human subjects, which includes most ethnographic projects. Key ethical considerations for medical anthropologists are:

  • Informed consent: ensuring that research subjects are aware of any risks and consent to participate in the study.
  • Privacy: protecting participants' health status, image or likeness, and private information 
  • Confidentiality: protecting the anonymity (if desired) of a research subject, often by using pseudonymous names for participants and field site locations

Medical Anthropology Today

The most well-known anthropologist today is Paul Farmer. A physician and an anthropologist, Dr. Farmer teaches at Harvard University and has received widespread acclaim for his work in global health. Other key figures in medical anthropology include Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Arthur Kleinman, Margaret Lock, Byron Good, and Rayna Rapp.

The Society for Medical Anthropology is the primary professional organization for medical anthropologists in North America, and is affiliated with the American Anthropological Association. There are scholarly journals devoted solely to medical anthropology, such as Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Medical Anthropology, and the online journal Medicine Anthropology TheorySomatosphere.net is a popular blog focusing on medical anthropology and related disciplines.  

Medical Anthropology Key Takeaways

  • Medical anthropology is a branch of anthropology focused on the relationship between health, illness, and culture.
  • Medical anthropologists can be divided into two key fields: applied and academic.
  • While medical anthropologists study a wide range of issues and topics, key concepts include health disparities, global health, medical technologies, and bioethics.

Sources