Epidemiology is the study of the distribution of disease in human populations as well as the factors that influence this distribution. I am extremely interested in disease prevention, and I hope one day to further the movement of the paradigm shift from treatment to prevention in western biomedical culture. Epidemiology is interesting to me because once the onset of a disease or physiological condition ensues, epidemiologists locate where it developed and its influences on public health in order to prevent it from spreading.
Taking an anthropologic view in the field of epidemiology would be useful in designing experiments. Epidemiologists create categories for data collection that separate ethnicities, and often culture is assumed within these categorizations. While trends may appear in this method, epidemiologists find that examination of why the trends appear useful for prevention of the disease in the public. In an article on social medicine, the author attempts to reveal the texture that the word culture has embedded into it: “Cultural processes include the embodiment of meaning in psychophysiological reactions, the development of interpersonal attachments, the serious performance of religious practices, common-sense interpretations, and the cultivation of collective and individual identity. Cultural processes frequently differ within the same ethnic or social group because of differences in age cohort, gender, political association, class, religion, ethnicity, and even personality” (1). Recognition that individual practices of health and sanitation vary within a culture is critical to experiment design and interpretation of data. If data collection shows that the people most likely to develop a particular disease identify themselves as “Mexican,” readers of the publication that do not identify themselves as Mexican may not be worried that a condition can affect them. While this is believed to hold some biological value (which we addressed earlier in this class—there is no gene for ethnicity), its cultural implication is overlooked. By identifying an addressing the practices within the population that make them more susceptible to disease, the public can have a better understanding of the way a disease could affect them as well. With an understanding of anthropology, epidemiologists can bridge the gap between medicine and culture in a practical way that takes individuals into consideration.
(1) Kleinman, Arthur; Benson, Peter. “Anthropology in the Clinic: the Problem of Cultural Competency and How to Fix It.” PLOS Medicine. [3:10] Oct. 2006