Epidemiology and Medical Anthropology

I picked epidemiology and medical anthropology because I believe they are both important complementary subjects that are useful when analyzing diseases. Epidemiology deals with control and distribution of diseases in populations. Medical anthropology, on the other hand, tends to deal with social and culture factors that affect the development, perception, and treatment of diseases among different cultures. The fields of epidemiology and medical anthropology apply to my interests because I intend on being a medical examiner. As a medical examiner, I will have to study the human body and causes of death. Disease is often a common factor relating to cause of death, so I’ll have to be familiar with the development of disease, as well as what factors could have potentially caused the disease, which is what medical anthropologists and epidemiologists study.

Epidemiologists study behavior that causes disease while anthropologists study social and cultural factors that cause these behaviors. If I was an anthropologist and I was working with an epidemiologist, I would be able to help the epidemiologist understand what factors lay behind the development of a certain disease. For example, infectious and parasitic disease investigators aren’t usually exposed to social factors that underline the disease. Anthropologists are trained to understand the social factors that underline the disease, though (Janes et al. 2008). Therefore, by having both of them, it’s pretty quick to understand certain diseases. Anthropologists are also useful when determining treatment for diseases. For example, like mentioned in lecture, if I was an anthropologist assisting an epidemiologist in India, and the epidemiologist knew that one way to prevent a certain disease was to boil the water, I’d be able to tell him that won’t work. Anthropologists focus on cultural factors, therefore I’d be able to tell him that in Indian culture, water is sort of like a sacred resource for them, and the boiling of it would destroy the value of the water to them.


Janes, Craig, Ron Stall, and Sandra Gifford. Anthropology and Epidemiology: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Health and Disease (Culture, Illness and Healing) . New York: Springer, 2008. http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=ggn-VgZceYAC&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=epidemiology and medical anthropology&ots=BLr6-41fZu&sig=ACHx898JEw_vDFUYTcxm8iOfK7A

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  1. Jacqueline Godin says:

    I actually picked a different interaction, mental health and medical anthropology, since I hope to become a psychiatrist someday, but I am also interested in how diseases are spread and what causes them. The whole idea of the physiology behind what causes an illness, whether it be physical or mental, is what fascinates me. I agree with all of the points you made, especially your last point about the boiling water example that was used in this week’s materials. If an anthropologist and epidemiologist were working together simultaneously in India, perhaps a lot of time and effort could have been saved.

    Another way of looking at this interaction could be that an anthropologist could give the epidemiologist more ideas of what could have caused a particular disease in the first place. For example, an epidemiologist may not take one’s culture or beliefs into consideration when looking at the cause, whereas the anthropologist would. Epidemiologists would most likely focus on biological or environmental reasons for why a disease would spread in that area. An anthropologist, however, would sit down and talk to the inhabitants about what their lives are like, what they believe in, and why they do the things they do.

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