Medical anthropology is the application of anthropological practice and methods to medicine. It considers how culture affects medicine and health. Medical anthropologists thus try to study medicine and health within the context of the culture it comes from, which is known as ethnomedicine. The history of medical anthropology stems from numerous other branches of anthropology, including religious anthropology and the study of rituals and health. Since World War II, anthropologists have often been involved in health initiatives around the world, with numerous health practitioners using anthropological methods to increase their efficacy.
Medical anthropological theory and practice is rooted in the work of Franz Boas. Medical anthropologists utilize various methods to gather data and study a culture’s dimensions of health. In participant observation, an anthropologist takes part in the culture they are studying. Ethnographic interviews ask questions of cultural informants regarding their understanding of their culture’s medical practices. Similarly, in illness narrative interviews, a person who has been ill is asked to describe their experience, both of being sick and how others treated them. Another method is to examine the choices people make when seeking medical treatment, a process called a health decision-making analysis. Anthropologists also use a number of quantitative methods, focusing on medical statistics, questionnaires, and surveys.
Medical anthropology embraces a number of theories. The biocultural approach analyzes the links between culture and biology, using aspects such as environment to understand how medicine and the culture around it develops. The symbolic approach to medical anthropology looks at the world of symbols that surrounding health and medicine in a particular culture, including the placebo effect and specific cultural phenomena such as “voodoo death.” Medical ecology suggests that environment affects the development of culture and thus of medicine. The cultural systems model is a theory used for cross-cultural analysis, creating a frame of reference for comparison and looking at why certain cultures prefer certain types of knowledge. Critical medical anthropology (CMA) analyzes how social inequalities in a culture affect health outcomes. Critical theories of health apply medical anthropology theory and method to medical practice with the aim of changing medical policy at multiple levels.
Medical anthropology, perhaps more than any other type of anthropology, is easily applied to other fields. Medical practitioners apply anthropological theory and methods to better understand their patients and improve their health outcomes. Evolutionary medicine studies how humans have evolved with the goal of better treating illness. This requires a fusion of biological anthropology, genetics, and globalization. Medical anthropologists also work within neuroanthropology, combining psychology, neurology, and human biology to understand and improve human physical and mental health outcomes. Reproductive health is improved with an understanding of medical anthropology, as culture is highly important to birth and childcare.
Inequalities of health are a particularly important place for the application of the work of medical anthropologists. From food deserts to the AIDS epidemic, medical anthropologists have applied their work to solving real-world problems and innovated novel solutions that could later be applied to other problems, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.