Topics in Medical Anthropology (Level II)
by Christiane Cunnar, Human Relations Area Files
Cultural views on medicine and medicinal systems vary widely. For example, a Western doctor may diagnose an illness as being caused by germs and prescribe penicillin as cure, a traditional healer may interpret an illness as being caused by evil spirits and perform elaborate rituals and animal sacrifices to cure the illness of the patient.
Medical centers that are treating patients from diverse ethnic backgrounds are now paying more attention to medical beliefs and practices that are outside the biomedical paradigm. They are starting to incorporate social and cultural differences into the medical learning curriculum.
The eHRAF World Cultures (http://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu) database can be used for a cross-cultural study of medical systems. The following exercises are designed to find illness causation and medicinal treatments across cultures. As you answer the various assignments and compare and contrast the cultural particulars, think about the following aspects. How does a culture classify causes of disease? What illnesses have similar causes? Who are the healers and medical practitioners and what are their names? What is the indigenous name of the disease? Who is being affected (e.g., ethnicity, age, sex)? What is the type of treatment? What is the indigenous name of the treatment? To what extent may the family or the community get involved in the cure of the disease? How does the diagnosis and treatment of the disease compare your own cultural beliefs?
Please note that eHRAF may contain documents over a wide range of time periods. If you encounter documents written more than 50 years ago, discuss how political-economic (e.g., globalization, introduction of market economy and democracy) and other forces may have affected the medical system (e.g., increased use of biomedical products).
You may use the eHRAF World Cultures (http://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu) database to study the various topics in medical anthropology. The following exercises show how to find information ranging from theory of disease to medicinal cures to ethnobotany and ethnozoology.
eHRAF User Guide
The eHRAF User Guides contains very helpful tips and search examples on how to search in eHRAF. If you have questions about searching in the databases, don’t hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, 1-203-764-9401 or 1-800-520-HRAF.
1. Theory of Disease
Using the eHRAF World Cultures database, compare and contast disease causation for five cultures from different major regions. As you compare and contrast the cultural particulars, think about the following aspects. How does a culture classify causes of disease? What illnesses have similar causes? Who are the healers and medical practitioners and what are their names? What is the indigenous name of the disease? Who is being affected (e.g., ethnicity, age, sex)? What is the type of treatment? What is the indigenous name of the treatment? To what extent may the family or the community get involved in the cure of the disease? How does the diagnosis and treatment of the disease compare your own cultural beliefs?
2. Disease Causation as Defined by George P. Murdock
There are many different theories on illness causation. In his classification system George Peter Murdock defines illness causation as “natural” and “supernatural” as outlined in the list below (Moore 1988).
|Theory of Natural Causation||Theory of Supernatural Causation|
c. Organic Deterioration
|I. Mystical Causation
f. Ominous Sensation
h. Mystical Retribution
|II. Animistic Causation
i. Soul Loss
j. Spirit Aggression
|III. Magical Causation
|Notes on Definitions-(Murdock, 1980)
a. “Defined as invasion of the victim’s body by noxious microorganisms…” p. 9
b. “Defined as exposure of the victim to either physical or psychic strain…” p. 9
c. “Defined as a decline in physical capacities attending the onset of old age..” p. 10
d. “Defined as the suffering of some physical injury under circumstances which appear to exclude both intention…and….supernatural intervention…” p. 10
e. “Defined as the ascription of illness to astrological influences, individual predestination or personified ill luck.” p.17
f. “Defined as the experiencing of particularly potent kinds of dreams, sights, sounds or other sensations which are believed to cause…illness.” p. 18
g. “Defined as coming into contact with some purportedly polluting object, substance or person.” p. 18
h. “Defined as acts in violation of some taboo…causing illness…” p. 18
i. “Defined as the ascription of illness to the departure of the victim’s soul from his body.” p. 19
j. “Defined as the attribution of illness to the…action of some…supernatural being.” p. 20
k. “Defined as the ascription of the impairment of health to the aggressive use of magical techniques by a human being…” p. 21
l. “Defined as the ascription of the impairment of health to the suspected voluntary or involuntary aggressive action of a member of a special class of human beings believed to be endowed with a special power and propensity for evil.” p. 21
Exercise: Select one or more of the disease causation concepts from the chart above. Using the eHRAF World Cultures (http://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu) database and other sources, find at least three cultures from different major regions (e.g., Asia, Africa, Europe, North America) with information relating to a type of disease causation selected. In an essay compare and contrast the cultural similarities and differences for the various concepts.
Hint: “Sorcery” and “theory of disease” are represented by OCM subjects and may used in an eHRAF Advanced Search and selected using the “Add Subjects” function.
3. Specific Illnesses: Causes and Medicinal Remedies
Cultural views vary on the causes of certain illnesses. Consider the common cold. Gilliland (1986) notes that some Eastern European groups such as the Croats believe that chilling a part of the body causes a cold. Examples are sitting in a drafty room or on a cold surface such as stone or metal, washing one’s hair and then going outside into cold air, or getting wet in the rain. Describing Croatian medicinal remedies, Bennett remarks on the value of rakija (a mild liquor) and how it “will cure everything from a cut to the common cold (Bennett 1974).” According to Laura Bohannan (1953), the Tiv of Nigeria believe that the common cold is associated with the phases of the moon and Paul Bohannan (1969) notes that “eating raw onions” can be used to treat the cold. Gould-Martin (1975) states that the Taiwan-Hokkien believe that cold is caused by “fright or offense.” Levine reports that the Amhara of Ethopia the believe “that smelling the urine of another will give one a cold (Levine 1965).” In the United States, health professionals warn that the common cold is usually caused by viral infections and that a person should frequently wash one’s hands with soap to prevent a cold. Once the cold is caught then nasal decongestants and cold medications are usually taken.
Exercise: Select three or more of the illnesses and conditions from the list below. Perform an Advanced Search in the eHRAF World Cultures (http://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu) to find at five (or more) cultures from different major regions. Compare and contrast the cultural views regarding the following: 1. illness causation and 2. medicinal remedies for the illnesses that you have selected. This exercise involves two separate searches. Hint: Keywords such as measles or influenza can be used in association with OCM subjects such as “medicinal remedies” and “theory of disease” (“Add Subjects”) in an Advanced Search.
|List of illnesses and conditions:|
|1. Smallpox or small-pox
4. Literate Medical Systems
The four “literate” medical systems include: 1. Chinese, 2. Ayurvedic, 3. Greek, and 4.Unani (Rebhun 2001). The Chinese medical system finds its roots in the first century B.C. and manifests itself in bi-polar typology: Yin which includes the earth, moon, water, cold, female, etc. and Yang which includes the sky, sun, dry, hot, male, etc. Chinese healers believe in preventing illnesses through a balanced diet and regular exercise and they prefer the use of herbs, acupuncture, and acupressure when treating patients. The Ayurvedic medical system developed in India around two thousand years ago and include cures such as massages, cupping, sweat-baths, and meditation. The Greek medical system originated in the fourth century B.C. and became the basis of biomedicine. This medical system assumed that there were four “humors” namely blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile which must be kept in balance. The Greek medical system has been practiced in Southern Europe and Latin America and treatments include herbs, cupping, purging, and blood-letting. The Unani medical system, prevalent in countries that practicing Islam, incorporates facets of the Ayurvedic and Chinese medical systems.
Exercise: Use the eHRAF World Cultures (http://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu) to find supporting information for the literate medical systems. Select one or more of the terms from the list below. In the Advanced Search of the eHRAF World Cultures database perform various searches to find information on these medical practices in terms of causes of illnesses and medicinal remedies. Relate your findings to the different medical systems and changes over time.
Terms referring to practices or ideas in the four literate medical systems:
3. Hot and cold
4. Wet and dry
5. Ethnobotany and its Medical Uses
In many folk medicines and traditional healing practices plants and herbal medicines are believed to have healing properties. For example, the antiseptic properties of garlic are widely known. Garlic has been used to cure everything-from bites, colds, boils, furuncles, wounds, fevers. Ginger is not only used for treating eye inflammations, stomach-aches, fevers and cold, but it is also used for childbirth. Rosemary is a good “general” herbal medication and will cure everything from headaches to toothaches.
Exercise: Select three or more plant and herbal names from the list below. Perform searches in the eHRAF World Cultures (http://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu) database to find at least five cultures from different major regions. Compare and contrast the cultural views regarding the medicinal properties. OCM subjects such as bodily injuries, mental and magical therapy, medical therapy, pharmaceuticals, child birth, post-natal care, etc can be used in the “Add Subjects” function of an eHRAF Advanced Search (see eHRAF Search Examples and Methodology ).
List of Plant, Fruit and Herbal Names:
6. Ethnozoology and its Medical Uses
Some folk medicines and traditional healing practices believe in the healing power of animals. For example, in the United States and European countries eating chicken soup is often viewed as a good way to cure the common cold. The Eastern Toraja of Indonesia believe that the saliva of chicken can cure centipede bites and chicken droppings are applied to wounds. In other cultures chickens are often sacrificed to appease the spirits who have inflicted ailments.
Exercise: Select one or more animal names from the list below. Perform searches in the eHRAF World Cultures (http://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu) to find at least five cultures from different major regions. Compare and contrast the cultural views regarding the medicinal properties of animals. Please note that several OCM subjects can be used for this exercise.OCM subjects such as bodily injuries, mental and magical therapy, medical therapy, pharmaceuticals, etc can be used in the “Add Subjects” function of an eHRAF Advanced Search and combined with keywords (see eHRAF Search Examples and Methodology ).
List of Animal Names:
6. Frog, toad
8. Chicken, hen, rooster
Bennett, Brian Carey
1974 Sutivan: a Dalmatian village in social and economic transition. San Francisco: R and E Research Associates. As seen in the eHRAF Collection of Ethnography on the Web, 4/15/02.
1953 The Tiv of central Nigeria. London: International African Institute. As seen in the eHRAF Collection of Ethnography on the Web, 4/15/02.
1969 A source book on Tiv religion in 5 volumes. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files. As seen in the eHRAF Collection of Ethnography on the Web, 4/15/02.
Gilliland, Mary Katherine
1986 The maintenance of family values in a Yugoslav town. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International. As seen in the eHRAF Collection of Ethnography on the Web, 4/15/02.
1975 Medical systems in a Taiwan village: ONG-IA-KONG, the plague god as modern physician. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, National Institutes of Health. As seen in the eHRAF Collection of Ethnography on the Web, 4/15/02.
Levine, Donald Nathan
1965 Wax & gold: tradition and innovation in Ethiopian culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. As seen in the eHRAF Collection of Ethnography on the Web, 4/15/02.
Moore, Carmella Caracci
1988 An Optimal Scaling of Murdock’s Theories of Illness Data-An Approach to the Problem of Interdependence 22: 161-179.
Murdock, George P.
1980 Theories of Illness: A World Survey. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
2001 Lecture Notes for Medical Anthropology (Spring Semester). Yale University, Department of Anthroplogy. Unpublished notes.