Medical Anthropology


Medical anthropology is the study of how cultural, historical, and political influences have affected, experienced, and interpreted health and sickness.

An interdisciplinary topic called medical anthropology examines "human health and illness, the health care system, and biocultural adaptability." One of the most recent and advanced subfields of anthropology and applied anthropology, it stresses how culture and society are shaped by or organized around concerns with health, health care, and associated issues. It is focused on using anthropological and social scientific theories and methodologies to investigate issues related to health, disease, and healing.

Theories of Medical Anthropology

To determine the kind of data needed and the kinds of issues we attempt to research in the context of a particular community, it is necessary to consider a variety of medical anthropological ideas.

Interpretive Theory

In contrast to scientific explanations, interpretive theory places more focus on the study of meaning. It also explains how different cultures utilize the human body as a symbol for many things, including health and disease. Interpretative anthropologists have come under fire for their lack of understanding of the wider political, social, and historical factors that shape people's lives.

Critical Theory

According to the critical theory, the effects on health are determined by the balance of global power between the countries. The political economy method transcends the purview of anthropology, history, political science, and economics when it comes to social class and interpersonal relationships. Critical medical anthropologists examine the larger social and political influences that influence an individual's health. The absence of historical and anthropological investigation in this approach has drawn criticism.

Ecological and Bio-cultural Theory

Studies among people who live at high altitudes and use economies like agriculture and hunting-and-gathering systems are the foundation upon which ecological theory is formed. Genetic, physiological, cultural, and psychological components of evolution and adaptation were the emphasis of medical anthropology from an ecological perspective. To explore the ecology of health, medical anthropologists integrate evolutionary theory and field research techniques.

Political Ecology Theory

Political ecology is the term used by anthropologists to investigate the consequences on the people of the Paleolithic era. They previously investigated the implications of deteriorating nutritional status, health, and life expectancy. In 1979, Eric Wolf (1982) coined the phrase "political ecology." According to him, it is important to understand the various ecological configuration of the Alps in light of both the political history of the research area as well as ecological factors like height, slope, soil, and precipitation.

The interplay between culture, biology, and health

Medical anthropologists research how diseases are thought to be caused and the methods societies have created to deal with health issues. Medical anthropologists aim to comprehend how conceptions of health, sickness, and the body are products of specific social and cultural settings through cultural relativism and a comparative perspective.

Numerous aspects need to be taken into consideration in the exceedingly complicated framework that links sickness and cultural features −

The host and parasite's mutual adjustment

When a novel, highly contagious parasite is introduced into a community, a genetic sieve is formed through which non-resistant individuals are quickly weeded out. In addition, because parasites profit most from coexisting with their hosts, natural selection will often act on the parasite population to create a strain with reduced virulence.

Cultural practices

  • Long-term changes − Almost all behavioral habits will influence the occurrence of diseases in some way. Since a population's ability to cope with the disease is only one of many issues it must deal with, not all of them will be epidemiologically adaptive. Minimax scenarios are likely to evolve in a way that advantages are at least roughly balanced against adverse circumstances.

  • The debut of new technologies − Virtually every technological advancement inevitably upsets the ecological adaptation that evolved during periods of relative calm. Technological advancements may alter the environment sufficiently to generate new and attractive chances for disease organisms or their carriers, in addition to causing issues in the economic order that may itself be reflected in illness incidence owing to increased stress.


The comparative study of cultural conceptions of health, disease, and healing is known as ethnomedicine. Humans have relied on natural resources and health and healing practices that are strongly related to spiritual beliefs throughout the vast bulk of our existence. Scientific research has proven the efficacy of many such therapies, including certain herbal medicines and methods like acupuncture.

Introduction of new disease

The emergence of novel disease organisms disturbs both genetic and cultural adaptations. Other illnesses that have been under control may once again become a concern depending on the general degree of resistance in the community. The introduction of new disease organisms disturbs the preexisting ecological interactions, just like any other change in environmental circumstances.


Even a small percentage of the group changing important cultural habits might open up new entry points for disease organisms. Even if just a small percentage of people experience social breakdown due to acculturation, this can nonetheless lead to new opportunities for disease organisms to infect the whole community.


Medical anthropologists can offer a distinctive viewpoint to help with problem-solving. A comprehensive viewpoint on human evolutionary and biocultural adaptations as well as an understanding of the connection between health and culture are provided by medical anthropology. There is a possibility for the development of new strategies for enhancing the health and quality of life for people all over the world as anthropologists investigate how people think about health and illness as well as the socioeconomic and cultural dynamics that influence the delivery of health services.


Q1. Define the scope of medical anthropology.

Ans. Medical anthropologists investigate health and sickness as biosocial states of being in the lifeworlds of various communities by creating linkages and fluxes between macro- and microenvironments, as well as the distribution of illnesses and resources supporting health.

Q2. Who was the pioneer of medical anthropology?

Ans. Benjamin Paul dedicated as the founder of medical anthropology.

Q3. Explain some recent instances of medical anthropology.

Ans. Studies on the effects of AIDS on Central African civilizations and the effects of new reproductive technologies (such as in vitro fertilization) are recent examples of the types of studies done by medical anthropologists.

Updated on: 16-Mar-2023


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