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Medical Anthropology


Rivkin-Fish, Michele R. (2014). Medical Anthropology. New York: Oxford University Press.


Medical anthropology examines health and illness, disease categories and treatments, the body, biotechnologies, and health-care systems as socially produced phenomena. As is true for anthropology generally, medical anthropology takes a holistic approach to research, examining cultural, historical, political-economic, and ecological dimensions of health and illness. There are a number of noteworthy intellectual trajectories. Biocultural anthropology examines the ways environmental conditions shape disease processes, highlighting the impacts of social, ecological, and evolutionary forces on human biology. Cultural medical anthropology is the largest subfield, with several lines of study. Ethnomedicine examines indigenous and non-biomedical healing systems in their broader cultural context, including etiological understandings, the social organization of healing relations and therapy management, nosology, and the effectiveness of healing approaches. Medical pluralism explores the ways persons and community groups navigate between competing healing approaches. Symbolic anthropology has been central to studies of ethnomedicine and medical pluralism, although scholars have also emphasized pragmatism and evolution. Mental health/illness is an arena where ethnomedicine has been particularly productive in highlighting the cultural diversity of illness knowledge and care for those considered ill. More generally, the ethnographic description of illness experience has long been central to medical anthropology, giving rise to numerous theoretical questions regarding the ways illnesses gain legitimacy or become stigmatized; the narratives of self, other, and illness that come to shape identity and social relations; and institutional, interpersonal, and expert forms of care. Race, gender, and other forms of difference in relation to illness, healing, and health system reform are of great interest to medical anthropology. A concern with inequalities characterizes all of the subfields, but it is the hallmark of one of the most vibrant theoretical frameworks in the field—critical medical anthropology, which emphasizes the global, political-economic, and historical contextualization of illness. Since the late 1990s, an important synthesis has developed between critical medical anthropology and biocultural anthropology, in which evolutionary and ecological components of disease are considered in light of political and economic inequalities. An abiding concern of medical anthropologists is the need to establish the field’s salience for wider interdisciplinary endeavors in medicine and public health. The question of how to demonstrate the field’s broader social relevance while maintaining the critical perspective on biomedicine and global health enabled by anthropology’s cross-cultural and political-economic frameworks has been a long-standing issue, both controversial and productive. It emerges in topics such as cultural competence and applied medical anthropology, genomics, global health, and health-care reform.


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Year Published


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Oxford Bibliographies in Anthropology


Rivkin-Fish, Michele R.