W7: A Better Understanding of Culture and Illness

This medical anthropology course has been an eye opening experience for me. I have a strong background in biomedicine, but before this course I never considered how anthropology could be integrated into medical practices. One unique aspect about this course is that at least one of the ideas, if not multiple, can be applied to almost every case in a hospital setting. I have taken many courses about illnesses and diseases that I will never encounter. The materials presented in this course will be extremely useful in every situation if I ever get a job in a clinical setting.

Going back to our first lecture, everyone has culture whether you realize it or not, and that culture will determine how they experience an illness (Lecture 1.1.) It was hard for me to realize this at first because I was looking at everything from a scientific perspective. I believed that regardless of your race or culture, western biomedicine remains constant and treats everyone the same. I never once thought of how diverse the world is, and that some cultures believe in alternative forms of healing.  Additionally, every individual, even within a certain culture, will experience an illness differently. Arthur Kleinman showed the importance of explanatory models and how they can hint towards a person’s true feeling about an illness. Some people are very open about their experiences, while it is very difficult for others to express their emotions (Kleinman, 1988.) Another important idea that I had never considered before this course was that healing the mind can be just as beneficial as healing the body. Western biomedicine tends to be very dualistic where the treatment of the physical body is kept separate from the treatment of the mind. Some cultures believe in more holistic treatments where the mind, body, and spirit are all incorporated (Lecture 3.1.) Lastly, the portion of the course that I found most interesting was the material related to immigrant health. My grandparents immigrated from Greece over 60 years ago and they still hold cultural beliefs that influence their experiences with illness. I never noticed this before, but my grandpa recently had hip surgery and my grandma was visibly upset and couldn’t understand why this was necessary. This could be because back in the villages where they grew up you only had surgery when it was a life or death situation. I would have never made that connection had I not taken this course.

One book that would be a good addition to this course is Medical Anthropology and the World System by Hans Baer. It explains the importance of medical anthropology and why it is necessary to use it in a clinical setting. The body is a complex organism which can be difficult to treat, but culture can be even more complex and should be given the same attention when treating an illness (Baer, 1997.)

Hans Baer, Merrill Singer, and Ida Susser. Medical Anthropology and the World System: A Critical Perspective. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1997.

One thought on “W7: A Better Understanding of Culture and Illness

  1. Hey John!
    This course was also an eye opening experience for me. I am a biomechanical engineering student so we learn the science side of medicine and it was really interesting to be able to look at the patient side and how anthropology can be incorporated into medicine. I, too, thought that Western medicine was a constant and everyone was treated the same because it is a science. I really enjoyed reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down; it really made me see that there is not a right way to healing. Growing up in the United States, it is easy to forget that there is more than Western Biomedicine. We separate the healing of the mind and physical body as two completely different types of treatment where some cultures heal them together, and this class showed me just how important treating the mind could be. I also really liked looking at the different cultures, such as the Hmong and the Lees and Africa and Ebola. I found it interesting to read about how they interpreted disease and illness. Such as the Lees thinking that Lia was sick because a spirit left her. To us in the United States, that seems so ridiculous, but I really enjoyed seeing how they would help her with Shamans instead of giving her all the drugs. The book you added sounds really interesting and like it would make a great addition! Good job!

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