Application and Theory

The incorporation of anthropology into international public health efforts called for a distinctly applied orientation, and medical anthropology was greatly influenced by this. Good (1994) refers to medical anthropology in the 1960s as a "practice discipline," dedicated to the service of improving the public health of societies in economically poor nations. Indeed, initial efforts at organizing a medical anthropology interest group occurred in the late 1960s under the auspices of the Society for Applied Anthropology (Todd & Ruffini, 1979).

The interest group settled in 1971 on an affiliation with the more generalist American Anthropological Association (AAA), and is now known as the "Society for Medical Anthropology" (SMA). Although this move firmly anchored the group within anthropology, the influence of applied perspectives remained strong. From the viewpoint of those seeking practical solutions to specific health problems, theory seemed abstract, obstructive, and sometimes even irrelevant. The authority of biomedical clinical culture, where curative work and saving lives takes precedence, was manifest (Singer, 1992).

The practical bent of much of the work of early SMA members was intensified by the fact that those anthropologists not interested in direct involvement in the application of their work tended purposefully not to identify with what was now referred to as "medical anthropology" (cf. Good, 1994, p. 4). Therefore, their health-related research, in which theory was more central, failed to provide much organizing force to the growing specialization in its early days.

As the century came to a close, medical anthropology grew dramatically, partly due to increased opportunities for applied medical anthropologists. But perhaps more importantly, non-applied anthropologists interested in health saw that they too had something to gain by identifying as "medical" anthropologists. For some, including those interested in cross-cultural health research, in which comparison and contrast is central, a key benefit was access to a community of scholars with a common interest in health issues—as well as health-related data from diverse cultures that might be shared. For others, the benefits included increased credibility in biomedicine and easier access to biomedical consumers, workers, and organizations. This facilitated anthropological investigations into the cultural construction of biomedicine, which have grown increasingly popular in the past 25 years. Investigations into the medicalization of pregnancy and birth were central to the growth of this area of research (Leslie, 2001, p. 431; Rapp, 2001). ("Medicalization"

generally refers to the extension of biomedicine's authority into non-biomedical realms and the resulting regulation of everyday life.)

Once committed to the medical anthropology specialization, academically oriented scholars pushed theory into a more central role. They called their colleagues to task for forgetting that there can be neither data nor facts without theories as to what constitutes each. They promoted the notion that theory must be used or applied: through use, it is tested, revised, and strengthened (Singer, 1992). Thereby, the somewhat spurious distinction between applied and theoretical (or "basic") research has become less salient.

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