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An Introduction to Medical Anthropology



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The study of Medical Anthropology is vast. It uses the disciplines of social, biological, and linguistic anthropology to examine the many different ways that people become sick and how they deal with issues of health and well being, the actual spread of disease and the effects caused, the solution to and treatment of various states of illness, types of healing, and the importance of individual medical processes in certain cultures.

Medical anthropologists examine how the health of individuals and social groups are affected by factors such as the environment, the interplay between humans and other species, what is considered to be of the norm within certain cultures and its traditional applications, micro and macro theories, and the further effects that world globalization will play upon wider social groups of race or gender in relation to illness, sex and death.

Anthropologists will apply theoretical approach and research techniques by looking at case studies in chronic illness or disease, urban violence, environmental damage, the global food crisis and even sorcery.

Experiences such as pain, adversity, and elation are analyzed from the context of geographical location and considered in the light of systemic inequality and population sciences and how this will have a direct on health and illness. Many factors will give weight to their investigation ranging from the effects of urban poverty, the new discoveries made in medicine, the response that diseases such as HIV and AIDS have elicited from world organizations and also from other infectious diseases that can be seen to be on the rise in certain populations in relation to culture beliefs and relative gender position.

One of the observations which draws a lot of interest from scholars is the concept of balance. We all seem to instinctively know that harmony is an important concept when we are talking about our health. Some cultures would use the concept of yin and yang and use Tai chi in the preventative sense of the word.

One way the medical anthropologist will gather his information is to directly work with a particular group, tribe or population to gain a personalized insight of their culture and belief system. All cultures have certain ideas about why a person gets sick and they will always try to find the remedy to the problem that is human nature isn't it? If a person gets sick, then a solution to that problem is found within the level of understanding pertaining to that particular culture, To not find a solution, will cause great unrest and fear especially among indigenous populations, so it is the job of the headman, tribal leader or "medicine" man to keep a positive attitude towards sickness and death.

For example, many primitive tribes of Africa, although they have had contact with the "outside world" primarily from contact with missionaries, will still consider their health to be intrinsically linked to their environment, their belief system and keeping the right balance within their lives. This may mean that will seek an explanation for sickness in a way that we may find hard to understand. Even though many tribes claim to be Christians, they are still bound by their past traditional values and beliefs and will still seek remedies by using witchcraft and sorcery, coupled with natural resources of the plants around them.

We now realize that these primitive tribes have much to teach us. In fact twenty five percent of our prescription medicine comes from 10% of the known rain forest plants. With yet more to be discovered and the growing realization that the solution to a lot of the worlds illness may be found in the rain forest, there is intense study being made of the cultural knowledge of these tribes and the positive aspects that can be applied to western civilization.

Other types of "natural health remedies" are being taken readily on board and experts are giving a lot more consideration to certain practices such as acupuncture and herbal medicine.

After studying the methods of "shamans" anthropologists have noticed that they work in a very similar way to modern psychotherapists and will often use the power of a positive thought to bring a favorable result. They will label the illness which takes away the "fear of not knowing" from the patient and will use the power of positive suggestion to make the patient believe they can get better.

The power of the mind can be a powerful tool and we are only now just allowing the realization that body, mind and emotion are all intrinsically linked and that they form a balance in the body that is important to the well being of the individual.

To sum up what a medical anthropologist does is to consider world health and illness from the holistic approach that sickness and health is linked to biocultural influences within defined populations and that the concept of health and well being can be seen to be unique to each social group.

By studying the different patterns of illness and the various cultural reactions, anthropologists are able to build a picture of how we humans cope with the daily rituals of life and death and learn new insights into how we have evolved as a species and use these predictive patterns to modify or change the way health-care and medicine is administered throughout the world today.

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