In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medical Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Classic Touchstones
  • Aging
  • Anthropology of Science
  • Applied Medical Anthropology
  • Biocultural Anthropology
  • The Body
  • Critical Medical Anthropology
  • Cultural Competence and Its Discontents
  • Debating the Field’s Goals and Purpose
  • Disability
  • Gender and Reproductive Health
  • Genomics and Post-Genomics
  • Marketized Medicine, State Policy, and Health Reforms
  • Medical Pluralism
  • Mental Health and Illness
  • Race and Racism

Anthropology Medical Anthropology
Michele Rivkin-Fish
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0099


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.


A range of textbooks have been published in medical anthropology, reflecting the diverse perspectives of the field while simultaneously striving for a degree of holism. Ember and Ember 2004 is a vast reference with stand-alone articles introducing key topics, terms, and conceptual frameworks as well as ethnographic case studies. Priced beyond the norm for textbooks, this reference would be best used selectively by advanced students interested in learning about a particular area of the field. Janzen 2002 is an erudite text that offers rich introductory explanations with attention to historical complexity. Joralemon 2006, one of the most popular introductory textbooks, is highly readable, with compelling case studies to illustrate theoretical concepts. McElroy and Townsend 2009 is a highly popular biocultural textbook now in its fifth edition. Wiley and Allen 2013 is another biocultural textbook that provides somewhat more discussion of paleopathology than McElroy and Townsend 2009. Singer and Baer 2012 is a well-written introduction to critical medical anthropology that highlights medical anthropology’s significance for a range of public health endeavors. Nichter 2008 also emphasizes the relevance of medical anthropology; his text is aimed at a more advanced readership of global health professionals. Winkelman 2008 is a textbook in applied anthropology suitable for all levels.

  • Ember, Carol R., and Melvin Ember. 2004. Encyclopedia of medical anthropology: Health and illness in the world’s cultures. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

    DOI: 10.1007/0-387-29905-X

    This massive reference provides essays on key concepts and areas of scholarship in all fields of medical anthropology. Organized into two volumes, the first examines general concepts; medical systems; political, economic, and social issues; sexuality, reproduction, and the life cycle; and health conditions; the second includes fifty-two ethnographic case studies.

  • Janzen, John M. 2002. The social fabric of health: An introduction to medical anthropology. Boston: McGraw Hill.

    Intellectually rigorous and clearly written, this textbook brings together a rich array of ethnographic and historical case studies. Focus is on cultural approaches, with some attention to biocultural issues. Diverse historical and intellectual trajectories within medical anthropology are also addressed. Suitable for advanced undergraduates and graduate students.

  • Joralemon, Donald. 2006. Exploring medical anthropology. 2d ed. Boston: Pearson Education.

    Clearly written, engaging introductory-level text that describes the multiple methods and approaches that comprise medical anthropology. Chapters include attention to research questions, methods, and analysis; case studies explore different approaches within the discipline to key issues such as epidemics. Substantial focus on biomedicine, applied medical anthropology, and medical ethics.

  • McElroy, Ann, and Patricia K. Townsend. 2009. Medical anthropology in ecological perspective. 5th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    Focusing on biocultural perspectives on disease, this classic textbook for advanced undergraduate and graduate students covers research in human biology, paleopathology, cultural anthropology, and applied medical anthropology. The fifth edition adds new sections written by leading specialists as guest contributors. Includes discussion of careers in health, environment, and applied medical anthropology.

  • Nichter, Mark. 2008. Global health: Why cultural perceptions, social representations, and biopolitics matter. Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press.

    Aimed at an interdisciplinary audience, including health professionals; would also be valuable for graduate-level students in anthropology, development, and global health. Through case studies and theoretically informed analysis, this text explains how the core insights from cultural medical anthropology are essential for conducting successful global health interventions.

  • Singer, Merrill, and Hans Baer. 2012. Introducing medical anthropology: A discipline in action. 2d ed. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.

    Suitable for beginning undergraduates. Authored by the leading scholars of critical medical anthropology, this text emphasizes the relevance of medical anthropological knowledge for undertaking global health and related work. Addresses traditional issues such as ethnomedicine and includes innovative chapters on what medical anthropologists do and topics such as climate change.

  • Wiley, Andrea S., and John S. Allen, eds. 2013. Medical anthropology: A biocultural approach. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This textbook, while emphasizing biocultural approaches, includes discussions of cultural dimensions of healing including ethnomedicine. Many chapters include brief profiles of leading “Anthropologist[s] in Action” and conclude with lists of suggested ethnographies that complement the theoretical issues discussed.

  • Winkelman, Michael. 2008. Culture and health: Applying medical anthropology. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    This introductory textbook is aimed at students of anthropology and the health sciences as well as health-care practitioners. Provides a good overview of all theoretical and methodological approaches in medical anthropology, including psychobiology of healing. Extensive attention on applied work in cultural competence, transcultural psychiatry, and ethnopsychology.

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