Ethnomedical Approach

Although all six approaches are interrelated and all are useful in studying health among cultures, I think the ethnomedical approach is the most useful for me when studying health. This approach focuses on medical systems among different societies that use a variety of methods in defining illness and finding the right treatment for such illnesses. I find this approach useful and interesting because it compares cultures and studies how they use medicine to diagnose and treat an illness. For example, in the western world, biomedicine is used to treat someone experiencing headaches by the use of pills and medication. On the other hand, African cultures might use methods of sorcery to diagnose an illness or disease and treat it. Comparing the two systems provides insight to a variety of methods of treating and diagnosing illness and therefore it helps determine how affective these systems are and the best ways to improve health.


Disease can be defined as a foreign body that can affect your physical or mental well being and is diagnosed by symptoms in western biomedicine. An example is a virus that spreads in a population. A virus will cause your immune system to weaken and can be spread among others. Two people with the virus might not feel the same symptoms but both are infected and should be treated. Illness is someone’s personal experience when something unpleasant causes physical or mental discomfort. It varies from person to person because everyone defines their own illness based on their experience, which is different from another’s experience. They could be free of any diseases but still feel ill. There is a clear difference between the two terms and I have observed such examples in others and myself around me.


The culture Miner is referring to in the Nacirema article is the one we live in today. I started to realize the reference when it was mentioned that the “Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy which has evolved in a rich natural habitat” and I knew that related to our culture. I was sure of this when the article further mentioned the hierarchy of medical practitioners and said that the “holy-mouth-men”, referencing to dentists, was below the medicine men, the physician.


One of the rituals of the Nacirema culture was that of the mouth. They performed strange daily rituals to ensure their mouth was kept “healthy” and they did not lose social relationships. The ritual involved seeing the holy-mouth-man who used magical instruments to open up the mouth and clean it. Another ritual among the Nacirema was the secrecy they put into daily exposure of their body and its natural function. These rituals were part of the culture’s beliefs and ideologies and determined how they lived their everyday lives. It relates to our society and culture and the importance we put into hygiene and appearance.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Tyler Kavanagh says:

    Hey after reading your post, I really liked your example given for the Ethnomedical Approach. I chose to use the biological approach but was torn between that and the ethnomedical one. Without knowing the culture behind each individual person it would be extremely tough to diagnose and proved the proper treatment. As for your definitions of “disease” and “illness”, I came up with very similar components to these words and couldn’t agree more.
    It seems like you noticed which culture the article was talking about a little bit before me but I do agree that they are talking about our culture but it wasn’t till the “medicine men” part till I had fully noticed it. I too noticed the underlying fact throughout the article that our society revolves a lot around hygiene and appearance, with people going to extreme lengths to have an “appealing appearance”. Now and days some people receive Botox injections, which could be an example of the extent people will go to look the way they think society wants them to look.

  2. Justin Kenton says:

    I found your post to be interesting and different from mine, but we did share some common thoughts about the approach you decided to write about. I ended up picking the biological approach simply because it seemed the most fundamental since our biology is all so very similar. Studying the effects of some disease on a person and the remedy can be applied to the rest of the population. What is interesting is that when we being to talk about illnesses vs. diseases. As you pointed out, not everybody agrees on what an illness is or how to treat it if they did. This is why I believe the ethnomedical approach is also extremely useful! Personally I think that western medicine needs to stop pushing medications on people and look to alternatives for treatments…

    Concerning the article by Miner, the rituals of keeping the mouth clean would be “strange” from our cultural practices, but obviously not strange to the Nacirema. The daily rituals of the mouth can be analogous to our daily brushing of teeth and going to see the mouth-men to that of seeing dentist. Even though these people practice such forms of oral hygiene (and torture), their teeth/mouth health has little improvement. This concept of repeatedly performing the same activity with little to no results can represent something that our culture practices and that is the act of going to see the doctor for a routine basic physical exam. I am sure there are some people who would argue with me on this point, but going to see the doctor to say a few words and have him or her check my heart rate, blood pressure, and my breathing is worthless to me. The “check-up” is nothing more than a revenue generating procedure.

  3. Cheyenne Benyi says:

    Hi Rei,

    I thought it was interesting reading about how you think the ethnomedical approach is the most beneficial when studying health. You have a valid point when talking about how important this approach is because it compares cultures together. I do agree that is the best way to improve health.
    When talking about illness and disease, I completely agree that illness is a personal experience and no two people will have the exact same experience. I also agree that a person can be free of a disease, but still be ill for example, mentally ill.
    The article by Miner had some pretty strange traditions described, but you seem to have caught on pretty quickly. Its funny to realize that all of these strange traditions are exactly what we do everyday. If someone told you that you had to stick hog hairs in your mouth or else you would have no friends, you would think this is a bit out of the ordinary. Of course this is only describing someone brushing their teeth so their teeth dont fall out. It all has to do with what perspective you are observing from. In this case, Miner was looking from a etic perspective which is why the traditions are described in a way we normally wouldnt describe it.

  4. Danielle Gittleman says:


    I thought that you made very valid point when explaining your reasons for talking about the ethnomedical approach. I picked this approach as well. I believe that a huge part of learning and understanding medicine is finding out how cultures are intertwined as well as ways in which they’re different. I think that the way you understand the article was very interesting. I saw the “mouth traditions” as a metaphor for the importance our society puts on health and wellness but I really like how you connected it to social relationships. This connects very well to your ideas of ethnomedical approaches because it’s always interesting to see how other cultures value and maintain health.
    The way that you explained the difference of disease and illness is very interesting. I, too, believe that illness is something that is a personal feeling unique to every person, even if they are suffering from the same disease. Although there are many differences between these two terms, the comparisons were not evident right away to me. I see disease and illness both as an outside force that affects people within a community. After reading your post I feel like I have a better understanding of the difference between disease and illness and I can related to many of the points you’ve made.

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