Background

Since its inception, medical anthropology has had an applied orientation; much of the work done by medical anthropologists is concerned with understanding and responding to pressing health issues and problems around the world as they are influenced and shaped by human social organization, culture, and context. Despite its strong emphasis on addressing practical health issues, initiatives within the discipline have tended to be guided by one or another of several alternative theoretical perspectives. While the boundaries between these frameworks for explaining health in a socio-cultural context have not been always sharply defined, and, although there have been disagreements about which are the leading theoretical approaches at any point in time, most medical anthropologists are influenced in their work by the dominant theories within the field.

Several efforts have been made to describe and contrast the most influential theories within medical anthropology. In his book Sickness and healing: An anthropological perspective, Robert Hahn (1995) identified three dominant theoretical frameworks within medical anthropology, including environmental/evolutionary theories, cultural theories, and political/economic theories. In his book, Medicine, rationality, and experience: An anthropological perspective, Byron J. Good (1994) identified four theoretical orientations found in medical anthropology: the empiricist paradigm, the cognitive paradigm, the meaning-centered paradigm, and the critical paradigm. Finally, in Medical anthropology in ecological perspective, Ann McElroy and Patricia Townsend (1996) also discussed four approaches, namely medical ecological theories, interpretive theories, political economy or critical theories, and political ecological theories. Despite these varying ways of grouping and ordering conceptual and explanatory models in medical anthropology, it is evident that there is general agreement that there are a small number of identifiable clusters of theory guiding the work that is done within the field. Prominent among these is the perspective that has been labeled either critical medical anthropology (CMA) or, less frequently, political economic medical anthropology (PEMA) (Baer, Singer, & Susser, 2002; Morsy, 1996).

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