This paper seeks to examine the cultural aspects of health and why medical anthropologists emphasize the need for local knowledge of culture to critically tackle human health. Medical anthropology is one of the major subfields of anthropology. It aims to understand the factors that influences health including biological and socio-cultural factors. The job of medical anthropologist is to determine the cultural aspects of diagnosis and disease treatment.
In essence, there are three major arguments shared by medical anthropologists include that culture shapes biology as stated by Margaret Lock during interview on CBC radio. Also, culture plays a definitive role in interpreting health symptoms. And finally, people around the world have acquired the necessary knowledge to help maintain their health. In her study examining the differences on how menopause is experienced in North America and Japan, Margaret Locke argues and disputes the claim that women’s experience of different experience of menopause in different places is purely biological.
Instead Margaret suggests that culture shapes how people interpret these symptoms. It was also determined that the western definition of menopause is far too limiting, as it focused on the midlife experiences as “unhealthy and nasty”. The physical effects of menopause included lower levels of estrogen on the body which were characteristics of the female mid-life experience. However, it did not focus on the symptoms. In the Japanese case, the symptoms are much more different as they included shoulder stiffness, headaches, and tingling in hands and feet. Koneki” the Japanese term for menopause has never been thought of as a disease-like state by doctors. This highly contrasts the North American symptoms of menopause which include hot flashes. Margaret has also discovered to there are no specific words in Japanese that describes the menopausal experiences during menopause including hot flashes. In a separate study, Margaret Locke has also found that there are strongly different views that exist between North American and Japanese cultures in terms of defining braindeath.
In the early 60s the ventilator was invented to keep near death patients still alive (Margaret Locke, Ideas, CBC radio). In a North American context, it is viewed people who are braindead according to Margaret Loke’s research are no longer considered to be living beings. While the heart may still function along with various other bodily functions, the brain is measured as central force of human life. Without it the individual is essentially lifeless with a beating heart. This is why most braindead patients in North America are taken off life support.
The Japanese on the other hand flatly rejected the notion that braindead individuals are considered as dead individuals as a whole. In a North American context, it was considered appropriate to donate internal organs from an individual who is braindead to those in need. This is because the west has embraced organ transplants due to its cultural past. These include themes of resurrection, history of medical dissection that stretches back to the Middle Ages. And finally, a cultural habit of stifling natural reactions that interfere with technological progress.
This does not mean however that the controversies and concerns behind organ transplants did not exist. Some of the concerns expressed by organ transplant recipients was the source of these transplants and whether or not they are civilized individuals or criminals. Margaret also suggested that some of the organ transplant recipients feared of inadvertently dying. Japan’s response to this phenomenon was much harsher. In Japan the family gets to decide first on whether or not their child is braindead, not doctors. In the Japanese context, the brain is not the deciding factor of life.
The underlying reasons behind these strikingly different views is the result of cultural factors. The Japanese belief holds that both the body and the mind are separable entities, and families hold greater authority over medical professions when making decisions regarding their health. In other words, the Japanese response outlines the cultural resistance towards science and technology. Some medical anthropologists have controversially suggested that the different approaches towards health in both North America and Japan is purely the result of biological differences.
Margaret was quick to criticize this claim, saying that “It is not considered to be appropriate by cultural anthropologists to entertain the idea of biological differences existing between the two cultures”. The claim made by these medical anthropologists was responsible for triggering the nature versus nurture debate. Cultural anthropologists believe there is a universal body. In other words, all humans share key physical and biological characteristics. Margaret has also suggested there was a lively interplay between biology and culture. Biology is not a universal constant” Margaret says, but rather, biology shapes culture. Evolutionary changes have also been considered as factor in differences in health practices between the two cultures. These include historical and environmental influences, dietary practices, marital and reproductive practices that vary from part of the world to the other. As a result, hypothesis has been developed and it suggested that the environment influences biology and biology is not a static entity.
This hypothesis contributed to the study of epigenetics. Epigenetics studies the interaction between genes and the environment. Despite the evolutionary theory that states acquired characteristics may be passed on from generation to generation, various medical anthropologists have asked themselves “Can genes be transmitted through culture? ” This paved the way for the invention of biomedicine. Biomedicine was invented in the 19th century. The major goal of biomedicine was to recognize diversity.
Furthermore, medical anthropologists who study biomedicine believe the body is decontextualized from the social environment and that nature is separate from culture and society. Features including shaking off the social context of their body. Patient’s accounts of their symptoms are not considered to be appropriate. This is because a patient’s response to their symptoms does not fully address the underlying reason of their condition. In the mid-20th century, it was believed that biomedicine would be the focal point of medical knowledge. This belief however never became rationalized.
The reason was chronic and degenerative diseases were not amenable to the infectious diseases. Despite the many benefits brought upon by biomedicine, it is still relatively a new science, one that is constantly evolving. Rivers claims that medicine in developing societies is not based on either practices of beliefs, but rather it is part of a society as a whole. In terms of medical epistemology the concept of health is viewed very differently among cultures. For example, the concept of health according to the indigenous people was related to the status of their land.
More specifically the Cree believed that if the environment was abundant in terms of natural resources and free from land occupation, this will contribute to a healthy community. The East Asian perspective views health as “in continuum with disease”. It focuses more on eradicating the symptoms rather than focusing on the symptoms. These examples illustrate how social order can impact people’s health in various cultures. In a separate case, Margaret Locke studied health implications faced by Greek immigrants in Canada, most notably the experience of Nevra.
Nevra was defined as “A manifestation of the particular problems raised by migration to a physical location. ” Furthermore, “social organization and lifestyles are completely transformed”. In Margaret Locke’s research, she conducted a study of Greek immigrants living in Montreal in the late 1980s. She discovered that most of the illnesses were experienced by women. These women have worked in the garment factory, who described feelings of headaches, chest pains, and those that radiate throughout the body.
In fact, Margaret says that in some instances the situation became so bad, that one Montreal hospital labeled as a diagnostic property. Nevra patients were often at times given anti-depressants even though they did not meet the category of depression The Greek Nevra condition is also experienced the Mediterranean, Middle East, South and Central American, and it is among one of the many conditions not recognized by biomedicine. This is why anthropologists view science as part of a cross-cultural phenomenon. Anthropologists are especially interested in how science evolves from one culture to the next.
The different medical practices and scientific knowledge are all studied carefully by anthropologists as part of their ethnographic studies. Through ethnography, anthropologists can tackle some of the major questions that pop up in their studies, for example, why does North America view menopause in one way while Japan the other. In many instances it is culture that is responsible for these varied responses and scientific knowledge can help analyze these varied responses. Science has both its pros and cons.
On the hand, science is often viewed as a useful tool in providing description through experimentation in order to help understand the world around us. On the other hand, however, there had been a few criticisms from sociologists with the likes of Ulrich Beck who criticized the uncertainty of science as being responsible for creating a “risk society” where “a phase of development of modern society in which the social, political, ecological, and individual risks created by the momentum of innovation increasing elude the control and protective institutions of the industrialized society. To summarize, these findings conducted by Margaret Locke and other anthropologis ts illustrates how an important role culture plays in terms of medical knowledge. While medical knowledge has been proved essential in the western world, in other cultures people take this knowledge for granted as they are able to tap into the local resources. Research has also found that alteration of local land resources as was for the Cree case, can significantly impact the health of the local population.
These health effects are normally associated with stress, and illness. Culture can also play a role on how we view certain health conditions. As seen in Margaret Locke’s study, the North American definition of menopause is not applicable to the Japanese context. Despite that, more emphasis has been focused on the differences rather than the underlying causes behind these different perceptions. If more emphasis was placed the causes, we would have gained a much better understanding on the cultural aspects of health diagnosis.