Medical Anthropology

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Medical anthropology is a good example of how anthropologists have been able to relate the natural sciences to the humanities. It is the study of how people in different cultural settings experience health and illness. Such experiences are examined in the light of a particular community’s knowledge about sickness and misfortune, in relation to broader moral and religious ideas. Recent examples of the kinds of studies undertaken by medical anthropologists include research into the impact of AIDS on Central African societies, the consequences of the traumas of war on families in Sri Lanka and Guatemala, the impact of the new reproductive technologies (for example, in vitro fertilisation) on British notions of ‘the family’, the impact of malnutrition on Brazilian ideas of children’s illness, the appearance of new illnesses like multiple personality disorder and chronic fatigue (Gulf War Syndrome) and the effects of migration on the mental health of ethnic minority groups.

At the moment, medical anthropology is trying to maintain its cultural interest in questions of knowledge, meaning and politics in the broader discipline of anthropology without becoming simply an ‘applied’ sub-discipline. Graduates who have studied medical anthropology are attracted to careers in international aid and social services, and health professions such as nursing and clinical psychology.

Text written by: Professor Roland Littlewood

Postgraduate Degree Programmes in the UK

Brunel University 

Durham University 

University of Edinburgh 

Goldsmiths University

Oxford University 


University of Sussex 

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Recommended Resources


The following trailer is for Uncle Poison, a film distributed by the Royal Anthropological Institute


Director Ricardo Leizaola
Release 1998
Length 60 mins
Location Venezuela, Caracas / America
Ethnic Group South American
University School of Social Sciences, The University of Manchester

Filmed in the city of Caracas, capital of Venezuela, Uncle Poison is an intimate portrait of a traditional faith healer, set against the backdrop of his community’s Easter celebrations. Every day, Benito Reyes receives people at his house looking for all sorts of cures. Through the personal testimony of the healer, this documentary looks at his role as mediator between the social, natural and spiritual worlds. Before curing someone, or even before harvesting medicinal leaves, he must first seek permission from the plant he uses as well as from a variety of Saints. He then uses these plants to extract the sickness and spells from his patients. A conjunction of sacred and profane, celebration and mourning, Easter provides a rare opportunity to look at traditional faith-healing in a wider social and religious context.

The Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) has one of the largest ethnographic film libraries in Europe. Films are available for hire, sale, or loan for educational and academic purposes. Click here for a list of films the RAI distirbutes on Medical Anthropology. 

General – excellent online tutorials on medical anthropology written by Dr.Denis O’Neil from Palomer College.– The World Health Organisation is the directing and coordinating authority for health within the United Nations system. It is responsible for providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends.



Introducing Medical Anthropology Second Edition
Singer, M. and Baer, H. (AltaMira Press, 2011)

A Reader in Medical Anthropology: Theoretical Trajectories, Emergent Realities
Byron J. Good (Editor), Michael M. J. Fischer (Editor), Sarah S. Willen (Editor), Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good (Editor)
(Wiley-Blackwell, 2010)

Culture, Health and Illness, Fifth Edition
By: Cecil G Helman  (Hodder Arnold, 2007)

Professional Organisations, Groups, and Associations

EASA Medical Anthropology Network – The European Association of Social Anthropologists has a medical anthropology network which aims to strengthen the subfield by enabling exchange of information and increasing opportunities for collaboration.

International Society for Ethnopharmacology (ISE)– ISE promotes interdisciplinary research in medical anthropology and seeks to understand the cultural and the pharmacological dimensions of human medicinal plant use everywhere.

Society for Medical Anthropology
– A section of the American Anthropological Association comprising an active research community supporting the endeavours of medical anthropologists and their colleagues in allied social science fields.