Medical anthropology as a scientific field in Russia and abroad

© 2012 M. Dobkin de Rios, T.Rakowski

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Key words: medical anthropology definition, physical anthropology, medical anthropology in USA, Russia, Europe, background and studies of medical anthropologist, biomedical education, medical anthropology leading researchers

Abstract:  In this article two leading researchers in the sphere of medical anthropology – Marlene Dobkin de Rios (USA) and Tomasz Rakowski (Poland) answer six questions about medical anthropology and its field of research, about education necessary for medical anthropologist and about the current state of development of this science in different countries.

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Marlene Dobkin de Rios

  1. Define what Medical Anthropology is in your understanding (scientific field; interdisciplinary area of activities of specialists from different fields; field of interests of ethnologists related to traditional medicine; something else)?

 

I believe that medical anthropology is an interdisciplinary area of activities of specialists from different fields. Not only is it related to traditional medicine but also to studies of culture and healing in contemporary world.  Human beings are members of social groups which influence the way they relate to illness and its treatment.

  1. What kind of correlation should be between Medical Anthropology/Ethnology and Medical Anthropology as a part of Biological (Physical) Anthropology related to medical issues?

In the US, we think about 4 fields of anthropology that include social/cultural, biological, linguistic and archaeological.  Culture contributes to all of these subdisciplines as much biological/physical anthropology related to medical issues as well as to all aspects of behavior.  In my own work at the Burn Center as medical anthropologist at the University of California Irvine, we had a number of multidisciplinary projects including using culture; data with hypnosis for pain control, with meaningful imagery in patients’ language (Spanish) to help in the healing process.

 

  1. What important scientific problems should Medical Anthropology address?

All aspects of disease are subject to cultural influence.  Faith in the healer, the healthcare system will influence healing.

  1. Does Medical Anthropology manage to achieve its goals in:
  • the USA;
  • in Europe;
  • in Russia?

Medical anthropology can be a powerful tool in the US.  I can’t speak for Russia or Europe.

 

  1. What kind of person should a contemporary medical anthropologist be (level of education, background knowledge in other scientific fields (and which fields), areas of interests and studies; other)?

A medical anthropologist should have at least a B.A. and M.A. in anthropology, with a general focus on culture and its influence in all aspects of behavior.  S/he should be familiar with the scientific method and experimental sciences and able to set up criteria to measure changes in behavior. Medical Anthropologists can specialize in areas of particular interest as well, such as sociology, psychology, biological issues, etc.

  1. Should a medical anthropologist today have biomedical education? How close should be relation between Medical Anthropology and biomedical knowledge?

This is too exclusive.  All of the four fields should be open to study.

  1. Please name researchers in Medical Anthropology who shaped/are shaping this area as a scientific field:
  • in the USA;
  • in Europe;
  • in Russia?

Cecil Heilman in Great Britain covered the field and the major researchers in this area.

 

Tomasz Rakowski

  1. Define what Medical Anthropology is in your understanding (scientific field; interdisciplinary area of activities of specialists from different fields; field of interests of ethnologists related to traditional medicine; something else)?

Medical Anthropology, from my point of view, is a part of “applied humanities”. It has two main aims. First, to reveal and describe all the experience, struggles and tensions experienced by people suffering from an illness. Here we can find the patients’ embodied experiences as well as illness narratives which form together a particular sense of subjectivity or a certain path of rebuilding the self. But there is also room for traditional/folk concepts of illness, treatment and all of the so-called culture-bound syndromes. These aspects are usually excluded from the mainstream discourse of biomedicine and seen as not valid or not useful. But the problem here is not to use the subjective data only in order to build high-quality medical knowledge but first of all to treat the findings as a record of autonomous, original experience which may reformulate the main goals of biomedicine, and also add a completely new perspective to current knowledge within anthropology.

Second, to reveal the socioeconomic backgrounds of experiencing illness, diagnosing diseases, organizing healthcare systems, building traditions and classifications within biomedicine, establishing recommendations for treatments and so on. Such knowledge has a strong critical potential, aims to discover the role of socioeconomic and global inequalities not only in providing healthcare but also in the process of the current biomedical knowledge production.

  1. What kind of correlation should be between Medical Anthropology/Ethnology and Medical Anthropology as a part of Biological (Physical) Anthropology related to medical issues?

This is a complex question. Medical Anthropology as a part of humanities should have autonomy, and for instance pose research questions which simply couldn’t appear within the discourse of biomedicine. Physical anthropology gives an important context to medical anthropology research, yet it is much more rooted in biological paradigm and seems to answer questions posed within biomedical discourse.

  1. What important scientific problems should Medical Anthropology address?
  • Understanding access to healthcare in the contexts of socioeconomic inequalities.
  • Understanding the constant emergence of culture bound syndromes and traditional knowledge on folk illnesses as valid and important social phenomena related to psychosocial stress, imaginaries of the state organizations and healthcare system, social and political tensions, and so on.
  • Building the perspective of medical pluralism (coexistence of various medical paradigms: ethnic/folk medicine, New Age movement medicine, biomedical/official, great traditional medical systems such as Tibetan or Chinese) in the context of currently emerging ethnic/ cultural/national identities
  • Understanding illness narratives: understanding experiences of ill people (especially suffering from chronic diseases) in the context of their biographies, life stories and the subjective sense of embodiment.
  1. Does Medical Anthropology manage to achieve its goals in:

–           the USA;

–           in Europe;

–           in Russia;

*It is difficult to evaluate this for me and I do not feel that I have right to do this.

  1. What kind of person should a contemporary medical anthropologist be (level of education, background knowledge in other scientific fields (and which fields), areas of interests and studies; other)?

Contemporary medical anthropologist is engaged in answering questions arising within the very discipline of biomedicine, as for instance those related to bioethics and its debates, yet his perspective should be much broader and primarily rooted in the humanities and social sciences. Often the specialist knowledge is required, such as MA/PHD: social sciences, cultural anthropology; BA: biomedicine, biology/genetics, health science.

  1. Should a medical anthropologist today have biomedical education? How close should be relation between Medical Anthropology and biomedical knowledge?

Basically, yes, to some extent a medical anthropologist should do some courses in Medical University with a help of professors of medicine. Studies at both faculties would be an advantage, yet the anthropological education is crucial here. Nevertheless, adepts of the discipline should have good relations with doctors, nurses and medical scientists, which means that they should fluently communicate on the basic level of specialist biomedical knowledge/ language.

  1. Please name researchers in Medical Anthropology who shaped/are shaping this area as a scientific field:

–           in the USA;

–           in Europe; 

–           in Russia?

No answer

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Editorial note

Dear colleagues! The Board of E-journal “Medical Anthropology and Bioethics” invites you to answer several questions that could help our readers better understand what Medical Anthropology is, and why it is an important and interesting field of studies carried out around the world. We would really appreciate if you could give detailed answers to the following questions. The text of these answers will be published in the next issue of our journal.

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