As society continues to evolve, it is increasingly important to have a deep understanding of the social and cultural factors that impact healthcare to understand the drivers behind human behavior and health outcomes. This is where medical anthropology comes in. For starters, anthropology is a social science that studies the past and present of human behavior, societies, and cultures.
As an interdisciplinary field drawing from sociology, public health, medicine and philosophy, medical anthropology more specifically focuses on the relationship between culture and health. It seeks to understand how different cultures around the world think about and behave regarding issues related to health and illness.
The discipline emerged in the 1950s and ‘60s to address the limitations of biomedicine. Unlike other fields that focus primarily on the biomedical drivers of health and disease, medical anthropology recognizes that health is shaped by a wide range of factors, including cultural beliefs and practices, social norms and structures, political and economic systems, and environmental factors. Medical anthropologists seek to understand how these factors interact and influence health behaviors and outcomes, and how they can be leveraged to promote better health and well-being.
Another unique attribute of medical anthropology is its focus on the experiences and perspectives of marginalized and underserved populations. Medical anthropologists recognize that health disparities are often rooted in social and structural inequalities, and that addressing these disparities requires an understanding of the lived experiences and perspectives of these populations.
A long-lasting human-centric scientific approach
Notable medical anthropologists include Harvard-trained physicians Paul Farmer, Arthur Kleinman, and Byron Good, and Margaret Lock and Nancy Scheper-Hughes. These individuals made iconic contributions to the field by answering questions such as:
- How do cultural beliefs, values, and practices shape our understanding of health and illness?
- How do gender, race, and other forms of social identity shape health and healthcare experiences?
- How do physicians and patients negotiate their roles and responsibilities in the healthcare encounter?
To answer research questions, medical anthropologists use the powerful method of ethnography to produce thick data to complement biomedical quantitative data. At its core, ethnography involves spending time with a particular group of people, observing their behavior in their environment, and interviewing them about their experiences and beliefs. This can involve living with a community for an extended period of time, attending their cultural events, and participating in their daily activities (via a method called participant-observation).
Through this process of immersion, ethnographers can gain insights into the cultural norms, values, and beliefs that shape the behavior of the people they are studying. They can also gain a deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities that people face in their daily lives. Rather than relying on preconceived notions or stereotypes, ethnographers can gain a firsthand perspective of how people live and experience the world around them, reaching a rich and nuanced understanding. By immersing themselves in a community and observing their behavior, ethnographers can uncover patterns and behaviors that might not be immediately apparent to an outsider.
Such questions allow an understanding of how healthcare practices and institutions evolve over time, and what IVF clinics in the U.S. and indigenous healing rituals in Vietnam have in common: culture. Both methods are culturally informed by values and expectations of social relationships, whereby IVF is a technology in the business of reproducing Western notions of kinship predicated upon biological parenthood, and some indigenous healing rituals reinforce spiritual ancestral identity and social community bonds to support healing. In addition, the diverse cultural values of ethnic groups in the U.S. and in Vietnam have implications for how each form of health care would be implemented and received.
Anthropology is more targeted, effective, and efficient by getting to the root cause of a phenomenon and couching it in the holistic context it exists in. By going below the surface, anthropology uncovers the deep drivers of behavior and mechanisms contributing to health outcomes. Thus, anthropologists are uniquely equipped to design services, products and communications to more effectively and precisely meet people’s needs.