Whats in a Name

There are still those anthropologists who prefer to self-identify as "cultural" or "social" anthropologists interested in health, rather than as "medical" anthropologists. In some cases they cling to the old-fashioned academic belief that applied work is infra dig} In other cases, their concern relates to their narrow definition of the term "medical."

Technically speaking, the term "medical" refers only to those curative practices engaged in by Western-trained, allopathic, biomedical physicians (and when hairs are split, surgeons are not included here). As effective as this type of curing may be, it is asocial and highly technologized, bureaucratized, and industrialized. It deals with body parts and systems rather than individuals. It values quantitative over qualitative data.

Naming the anthropological health specialty "medical anthropology" thus may be seen to suggest that the standard against which all other healing or curing practices should be measured is the "medical" model (as defined above). Such labeling may be understood to imply that an anthropology concerned with non-"medical" healing or based on the interpretive ethnographic method is unimportant or tangential.

On the other hand, many medical anthropologists' work has nothing to do with "medicine" as it is technically defined (i.e., as biomedicine; see above). For them, and even for many anthropologists working in biomedical settings, the term "medical" is used in a more generic, universalistic sense. It is understood to refer to any system of curing or healing—no matter what specific techniques are involved. The label "medical anthropology" is thus not problematic for them.

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