Since a lot of what defines health is based on cultural context I think the ethnomedical approach will be useful to me. Each culture has its own idea of what normal health is. Many years ago I read The Island of the Colorblind by Oliver Sacks. In the society described on the Micronesian Island of Pingelap, it is very common for people to be born with achromatopsia. As a result the people on this island don’t treat colorblindness as an illness. It is simply an attribute that some people have and some do not. The society has evolved to accommodate the inability of some of its members to see color normally. Understanding why people choose certain medical treatments or feel that they have an illness depends on their cultural background. The ethnomedical approach is crucial to understanding other country’s health care systems.

The distinction between disease and illness was not immediately apparent to me. I seemed like disease was used to describe the physical aspects of an abnormality, whereas illness encompasses problems that may not have a physical manifestation. If someone perceives that they have an illness than they do. Illness includes the human perceptions of a divergence from a healthy state.

I knew the Miner article was about American culture when it got to the chopping down of the cherry tree myth and Washington at the Potomac. Even though it was written 50 years ago, we still equate good hygiene with moral rectitude. The teeth brushing ritual is still very important because it affects how we interact with others. Having white straight teeth is often considered a sign of wealth and health. This is reflected in our media too. It is common for classic villains to have yellow, crooked or missing teeth. The other ritual that interestingly portrayed was going to a “listener”. Talking to a psychiatrist seems like a strange thing to satirize but perhaps it would seem that ridiculous to an outsider.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Amber Schmenk says:

    Hi Rebecca!
    I really liked your reference to Pingelap society to help better understand the importance of the ethnomedical approach in medical anthropology.
    I definitely agree that, despite the article being over 50 years old, health values and ideologies seem to be similar to what we believe today. Miner described how the “Nacerima” culture will go through pain and torture in order to stay healthy and attractive; and, despite the “latipso” often being a place where people go to die, members of “Nacerima” culture still trusted to undergo “rituals” at the “latipso” to cure illness. These are obviously things we still do today.
    In reading Miner’s article, I am reminded of how many present day Americans are constantly trying several new diet trends despite often being ineffective. As a culture, we are always looking for the next best thing in health and medicine even if it may not be “tried-and-true”.
    At the same time, I like to look at our drive to find the newest, though sometimes odd, treatments and ways of living a healthy lifestyle as a good thing. Although many of our medical advancements are based simply upon finding ways to make us more attractive, I feel as though we, as a culture, are also learning the importance of staying fit and healthy whether undergoing certain treatments are for vanity or not.

  2. ahmadmad says:


    I particularly liked your statement concerning the very true fact that we have come to equate the appearance of our teeth to the status of our wealth or how evil a person might me. I never thought about the classic villains in movies normally being portrayed with some terrible looking teeth.

    As far as talking to a psychiatrist goes, it is quite a strange thing our society has began doing more and more. It used to be one of those things no one really liked to talk about, especially 50 years ago. But I think the stigma of it has started to fade. In my opinion psychology and psychiatry have officially found their grounding in the medical world of American culture. No other really culture considers it normal to claim that your mental stability will cause you any harm over time. And it’s definitely weird to other cultures to pay someone so much just to have them listen to what you have to say.

    It just goes to show that the amount of medical help we think we need in this society runs deep. But the only way we would consider it normal is if it is officially defined as a medical problem that a doctor can fix. It’s not so normal if we go to a voodoo doctor to help us with our problem.

  3. mcdonn38 says:

    Hi Rebecca,

    I agree with your reasoning of how the ethnomedical approach is important while reading this article. We have been living in our culture for so long it is strange to believe anything that we aren’t familiarized too can be a norm somewhere else. Like in old Europe hundreds of years ago, everybody wanted that pasty white skin. But now people get ridiculed for it and being tan is what everybody wants!

    And although this article was written 50 years ago, they seemed to have a grasp on the importance of oral hygiene much like we do today. The dentist and orthodontist are more popular then they have ever been and a lot of bad social stigma is placed on people with crooked/yellow teeth. They are seen as a lesser class who don’t care for their appearance or do not have the wealth to do so. The visits to holy-mouth-men also show how much of a priority their mouths are, even if those men do not necessarily help.

    • mcdonn38 says:

      oops forgot to add about the “listener”. Also it seems their “listener” does what a psychiatrist pretty much does, listens. Although usually they go to see a “listener” as a part of a large number of steps of being cleaned of any serious aliment they have when they make their journey to the temple, generally physical. The “listeners” would be more like our culture’s psychiatrists if they would talk to the people who just have emotional problems and are not physically ill.

  4. Josh Hartwig says:

    I agree with your logic on how the ethnomedical approach will be useful in medicine. I do believe that to be able to effectify treat your patient you must first know your patient. So in this sense knowing the society and cultural aspects of your patient would be very relevent. This would allow you to work around things that could be issues with certain peoples religous beliefs. It is also interesting to me to think that a disease is not a disease everywhere in the world. You would think that it would be universal but depending on what region of the world you are in that might not be the case so that is an intreaging thought for me.

  5. Josh Hartwig says:

    I also thought it was intersting in the Miner article to see how he talked about our bathrooms and how he made it seem like we were paraniod in the way we prefer privacy. I thought it to be almost comical afterwards thinking about it, but it is true if you really think about it. If he wrote it now he could make it seem even more ridiculous by saying things like the people carry around strange objects that gyrate and make strange noises. Then they proced to talk to people that are not even in the room with them. With current techknowledgy you could amend this article to make it really funny.

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