W7: Culture, Health and Illness Narratives

During this course, I continued to develop my critical thinking skills and found myself constantly evaluating how I perceived the world. I think the most significant realization I had was that I actually didn’t know as much about my own medical system as I had thought. While it may seem like a bad thing, I actually find the idea to be motivational. It means that I have plenty left to learn (and I enjoy learning), but it also means that there are probably many people who could benefit from the knowledge I will accumulate over the course of my career in medical anthropology. Of course, some topics were more interesting to me than others, in particular the units on mental health and medicalization. I found the information about explanatory models to be especially important because these models are the foundation on which our illness experience and illness narratives are created (Kleinman, 1988 and Lecture 2.1). In truth, I had never really thought about how my perception of illness and my doctor’s interpretation of my narrative interact with each other, or whether that interaction was positive, negative or somewhere in between. I have always just assumed that my doctor and I see illness the same way, which is a pretty big assumption and probably not accurate.

I have two book recommendations that I believe could be beneficial to this course. The first book is Biomedicine and Alternative Healing Systems in America: Issues of Class, Race, Ethnicity, & Gender by Hans A. Baer. This book would be a great addition because it takes a critical look at the history of biomedicine in relation to medical pluralism and how biomedicine has secured its position as the dominant healing system in the United States (Baer, 2001). Many interesting systems are covered in this book that are practiced by people of different cultures, such as “Santeria among Cuban Americans” and Naturopathy (Baer, 2001). The second book, titled Complete Guide To Alternative Medicine by William Collinge, gives us a deeper look into many different healing systems from around the world (Collinge, 1996). The systems covered in this text include Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, Naturopathic Medicine, Homeopathy, Mind/Body Medicine, Osteopathic Medicine, Chiropractic and Message Therapy & Bodywork (Collinge, 1996). Both of these books were assigned readings in a previous course I had taken and I found them to be particularly valuable to me in my desire to learn more about the world of medicine from an anthropological standpoint. I have often wondered how other forms of healing worked, if at all, and these books gave me a greater understanding. I also have a video recommendation in the form of a speech given by Arthur Kleinman at UCT (University Cape Town) that did an excellent job portraying the “cynical” world of today (Kleinman, 2013). In his speech, Kleinman explains how our social, political and economic systems construct our cultures and shape our experiences, often to our detriment (Kleinman, 2013). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4F308xUBcAY


Baer, Hans A. Biomedicine and Alternative Healing Systems in America: Issues of Class, Race, Ethnicity, and Gender. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001.

Collinge, William. The American Holistic Health Association Complete Guide to Alternative Medicine. New York, NY: Warner Books, 1996.

Kleinman, Arthur. “Caregiving and Goodness: Their Broader Role in Society.” Speech, Caregiving and Goodness: Their Broader Role in Society, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa, February 7, 2013.


3 thoughts on “W7: Culture, Health and Illness Narratives

  1. Hi Cory,
    I really liked your post. The first part where you discussed what you learned as interesting and I would agree this class gives you a different perspective into our own medical system. Not only as it compares to others in a global concept but also here in America. And your discussion of patient doctor narrative was great too. You never know how someone things about something- in this case illness. Case in point “ the spirit catches you and you fall down” literally the way the Lee’s viewed the illness compared to physicians could not be more different. Therefore knowing that these narratives are different is so important!
    The books you recommended also seem really interesting. The first book Biomedicine and Alternative Healing systems.. I think having an understanding of the past is crucially important for going forward. And it is very similar to why I took this course, to have a deeper understanding of the alternatives to how people are treated so as a physician I will be more comprising. And the second book you recommended is very similar. Although western doctors would not use these techniques it would be helpful to know that they exist, and the how and why they are done.
    Thanks for the post- and great book recommendations!

  2. Hey Cory. Very interesting blog post. I would definitely agree with your first statement that I found myself constantly evaluating how I perceived the world. Learning all the information we have during this course has opened my eyes to the Western medical system in a new way. Whether it be good or bad, I’m still trying to figure that out. I also assumed that all doctors saw illness in the same way, that being through a Western medication lens. However, we have clearly learned that different cultures view the same diseases, pains, illnesses, and other medical issues in vastly different ways. The biggest take-away I had from this course is that there needs to be integration of these various cultural lenses. Using a combination of multiple treatments and perspectives when treating a patient could ultimately be the most successful for doctor and patient both.
    While I have not personally read either book you recommended, they seem like they would both be great materials for this course. I particularly am interested in Biomedicine and Alternative Healing Systems in America: Issues of Class, Race, Ethnicity, & Gender because as a cultural Anthropology major, I am specifically interested in how class, race, and ethnicity in particular interact and affect individuals in society.

  3. Hi Cory,
    I also further developed my critical thinking skills due to this course. I liked the point you made about how you learned so much about our medical system and yet realized how much you still have yet to learn. I think this is an important point for everyone to look at. I think a lot of times we think we know all we need to know about something, such as our medical system, and fail to realize that we could benefit from expanding our knowledge even more. I found this class to be an extension of this idea. I also enjoyed the week two material. I had not heard of explanatory models before this course, but I think that they are very important to understand. By understanding other people’s explanatory models, doctors and caregivers can better understand how to give them appropriate care and treatment. I think that this played a major role in Lia’s care in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. The doctors lacked an understanding of the Lee’s family explanatory model and did not give the family proper treatment for Lia based on this. Because her family did not speak or read English, they were unable to administer the proper dosages of her medicine and eventually began to believe that the medicine was a problem and not a cure (Fadiman, 1997). I think all doctors and caretakers should learn from this and attempt to understand the patient’s explanatory models before administering a treatment.

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