Clinical Medical Anthropology

For this week’s reflection post I chose clinical medical anthropology specifically because I believe it is the most applicable to my future career. In lecture we learned that medical anthropologists analyze issues that are very specific to a specific client. In the case of clinical medical anthropology, anthropologists use the anthropological approaches that we’ve learned in this course (anthropological theory) and interdisciplinary methods to examine localized issues with health. These types of anthropologists have an immediate benefit to the community they are studying because they try to understand the entire patient perspective on the illness. This includes considering cultural, biological, and social constructs that have influenced the way the patient thinks about their health.

My immediate career after graduation will be in a clinical laboratory setting running patient tests. Although this may be linked to the biological perspective of the patient, I would like to attend medical school and ultimately have the authority and knowledge to help people directly. Clinical medical anthropologists not only help people directly, but they possess the ability to positively impact entire communities. I have always liked to help people and I have always thought I would make a great doctor one day. However, clinical medical anthropology seems to take the influence of a doctor and increase it exponentially.

An insurance company might not be the first thing one thinks about when they think about healthcare, but I believe it perfectly illustrates the importance of taking an anthropological viewpoint in the medical world. Let’s say one person contracts some sort of disease that requires them to have a major surgery, but the patient refuses and continues to need medical care over a long period of time. Should the insurance company stop covering the patient once they’ve reached their fixed allotment of coverage (which could cost the insurance company a lot more than if the patient elected to have surgery)? What if a representative from the company contacted the patient and asked them questions about their decision instead? The patient may have come from a family that did not approve of surgical intervention and did not want to disappoint their family by proceeding with surgery. In this case, if the company simply talked to the patient and reasoned through the possible monetary, physical, and mental costs to their family, they may save everyone a lot of money and allow a patient to live a long, happy life.

The scenario above is similar to the YouTube video by Tribal Jazzman Scholar. In the video, the man says he studied medical anthropology and proceeded to travel around the world helping others as an anthropologist. He listed stories about anthropologists who worked under the assumption that third world countries are simple and inferior to western ways of doing things. One story was about a woman who taught a village to boil water to prevent E. coli infection in the community. The woman was surprised to see that the village did not continue boiling water after she left. When she asked them why, they told her that water is a sacred thing that comes from the earth and should not be tampered with before it enters their bodies. Had the anthropologist known that ahead of time she might have been able to come up with a different solution that still prevented the spread of the disease. The anthropologist then described similar stories where the actions of the anthropologist had unintended effects on different communities. These situations are similar to the movement to certify coffee in 1980s Central America. According to medical anthropologist Miriam Ticktin, the original purpose of certification was to take control of the labor and production of the coffee trade and improve the lives of the workers. Unfortunately, because of free trade and the spread of capitalism, certification has come to represent the lowest selling price, defeating the original purpose of the certification process (“Introduction: Human Rights and Global Corporations”, 1018-19). Clearly it is important that all people linked with healthcare look at problems with an anthropological viewpoint.


Ticktin, Miriam. “Introduction: Human Rights and Global Corporations.” Social Research 79 (2012): 1017-21.

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