Ethnomedical Approach

I think the ethnomedical approach is most useful in studying health, since it addresses health and illness within indigenous constructs and local disease taxonomies. Hence, anthropologists can explore cultural explanatory models of etiology, pathophysiology, treatments, and prognosis of an illness entity. The ethnomedical approach is also valuable in its incorporation of linguistic categories used in the relaying of an illness narrative, and can be a lens to interpret an individual’s “language of distress” (a term used by Cecil Helman) and whether they will be compliant with physician instructions. It evaluates the effectiveness of traditional remedies of popular, folk, and professional sectors of a society, and can provide insight into an individual’s “strategy of resort to healing”, a phenomenon described by John Janzen.

Disease represents the visible, clinical, and physiological manifestations of abnormalities in bodily function or structure, or infection with a pathogen. In contrast, illness is an individual’s experience of distress or disorder with regard to health within a particular sociocultural context. The distinction is apparent because the former invokes biomedicine, while the latter is of subjective nature, in that illnesses are not uniformly identified by Western physicians and are based on patient perception.

Miner is referring to American culture, which I inferred from his description of cultural hero “Notgnishaw” chopping down a cherry tree, who I recognized as George Washington.
One cultural value of the Nacerima is purification and cleanliness as an indicator of health, as revealed through “shrine” or bathroom rituals and “mouth-rites” or teeth-brushing.
Another Naceriman cultural value is esteem for medical practitioners, as exemplified by their fee-for-service paradigm (they are “rewarded with substantial gifts”).  Additionally, prestige for practitioners appears through their portrayal as the guardians of a privileged and sacred knowledge; for example, they write ingredients for medicines in “an ancient and secret language,” which represents the medical terminology with which laymen are not familiar. Furthermore, the Nacerima value specialization and compartmentalization of medical practice typical of the reductionism of Western biomedicine. This trait is highlighted by the use of medicine men, herbalists, dentists (“holy mouth men”) and psychoanalysts (“listeners”) and their hierarchy in terms of reputation and power. A final cultural health value of the Nacerima is privacy and modesty with respect to bodily matters such as excretion and parturition, due to a “pervasive aversion to the natural body and its functions” which alludes to shame surrounding bodily taboos.


My definition of health is not only the absence of infection and chronic conditions, but also represents a state of biological, cognitive, and social well-being. Likewise, illness is any affliction that causes deviation from a state of optimal living, whether it be a foreign organism, a congenital defect, or a physiological aberration in function or structure. My deciding factor for the manifestation of illness is the experience of distress or disorder in psychological, emotional, spiritual, and interpersonal realms.

These ideas originated both from Western biomedicine and my empirically-rooted background in science, and from my Culture, Health, and Illness course.  I also think the resurgence of a movement towards natural and organic remedies in the media has perpetuated a more holistic, integrated perspective on health and wellness.  This, in conjunction with the advent of germ theory and vaccinations to immunize against acute disease, has shifted emphasis from health as absence of pathogens to health as an all-encompassing, ideal state of physical, mental, religious and social harmony.

Accordingly, ADHD is classified as an illness, since it detracts from optimal performance by disrupting learning and attention. It can have disabling effects upon academic, occupational, and interpersonal aptitude. Moreover, it qualifies as an illness due to the implication of anatomical and neurotransmitter perturbations.

Similarly, HIV is an illness since it is a communicable retrovirus, which is intrusive upon biological, psychological, and social spheres. The decline in immunity leads to opportunistic pathogens and bodily degeneration; this compromises ability to remain employed, and diagnosis can cause stigma that affects emotional welfare and constrains relationships. In contrast, I think HIV is a disease and not an illness in its early stages, as a person that is asymptomatic while the virus is latent may be ignorant of their HIV-positivity and will not experience debility or negative social or psychological consequences.

However, I do not think sadness is an illness unless it is of sufficient duration, frequency, and severity to inhibit normal functioning in any of the realms discussed.  Unlike clinical depression, sadness is a disposition on a spectrum of normative emotions, and would not be an illness unless it interfered with the person’s daily living, caused social alienation, or was perceived by the person to cause significant distress. Here, it is the person’s experience of being unwell and their illness narrative that determines whether their affective state can be considered an illness.

Can’t Wait to Graduate

Hi everyone,

My name is Ali Le Vere and I am a super senior, thrilled to be graduating after this summer session. I am earning degrees in Human Biology through Lyman Briggs College and a Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology, as well as specializations in Bioethics, Humanities, and Society and Health Promotion. I took ANP 101 (Introduction to Anthropology) several years ago and ANP 370 (Culture, Health, and Illness) last spring, the latter of which piqued my interest in learning about health disparities, differential access to health care, indigenous medical systems and medical ethnocategories. I’m looking forward to learning more about the discipline of Medical Anthropology.


I chose a picture of my boyfriend and I last winter in Chicago, which is where I am originally from.