Culture Health & Illness Theme one


Human beings & their origins, history & cultural development.


''Medical anthropology is the study of human health and disease, health care systems, and bio-cultural adaptation''


'' Is the social & cultural dimension of viewing health, illness, healing & disease''

  • It is the better understanding of alternate medicine including medicine from other cultures.

  • It involves rethinking the basis for our understanding of how we define what medicine, health & healing is.



  • Anthropological perspective & research methods are used to the study of sickness, health, healing & disease

  • Holistic approach is used

  • Look at both Nature & Nurture

  • Nature: try to understand the human body & mind (biological)

  • Nurture: Social & Cultural dimensions

  • We need take both Nature & Nurture into consideration when doing sickness/disease profiling of a particular community, this is done through: OBSERVATION, INTERVIEWS & ORAL HISTORY

  • Need to go beyond a Medical Framework to a more Holistic approach

  • Need understand person's background in terms of RELIGION, POLITICS, ECONOMIC, SOCIAL ORGANISATION- These aspects of society impacts on sickness/disease in different ways.


  • Developed in the mid 1960's

  • Time where people started questioning the environment

  • Looked at other alternate factors that are impacting on the spread of illness/disease

  • Started to shift away from a purely biomedical approach to find the root problems

  • Started to view illness more holistically- patient & illness/disease profiling

  • With treatment from clinics & hospitals people's Health still not improving, WHY?


  • One of the first combined studies to be undertaken, by both Biomedical Practitioners & Anthropologists in the 1960s

  • Understand why anemia was on the increase even when people where given the medication

  • Study focused on Spanish speaking immigrants in the U.S

  • Find out why pregnant women hemorrhage during child-birth, even though they where given the anemia medication at the hospitals & clinics

  • Anthropologist where sent in to investigate

  • It was found that this community held certain belief systems that prevents them from taking certain things

  • They had a hot/cold classification system for every aspect of the life?e.g for medical, food, disease.

  • They believe that the head was hot, so the women perceived the anemia medication as hot, as the pills were red in colour

  • The idea was in terms of hot & cold, you do the opposite of what you feel

  • Here the women believed there head was hot and the medication was red in colour, hence, its was something hot

  • Therefore they where not taking their anemia medication

  • As the believed in doing the opposite to what you feel

  • Anthropologists recommended that the colour of the medication should be change.

  • Doctors with this information now, suggested the women put the tablet in orange juice so it turns white

  • Later on the medication colour changed

  • From this we see how cultural belief system impacts on people's healing


  • Know we look at how western society impact on dietary changes in traditional societies (from a medical point of view)

  • Detrimental effect on non-western population, where western convenience food have been introduced

  • With this new convenience food people eat less traditional food & more unhealthy fatty food

  • See a rapid rise in new diseases as a result of new lifestyle change e.g diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, high cholesterol etc?

  • Nutrition & Culture, staple food high fiber was barely consumed. In many societies there are different belief systems surrounding food, in terms of what to eat n what not to eat

Bio-psychosocial Model vs Bio-medical Model

  • Biomedical is known as modern Western Medicine

  • Approach to disease, Views the as Body as a machine

  • Treat you with medicine on the symptom only

  • Chemical response

  • Interested in the disease not the person, disease as separate from the person

  • Bio-psychosocial Model, Anthropologist tried to move away from the Bio-medical approach.

  • Look at Disease & Illness Holistically

  • Attitudes that determine survival, Psychological

  • Social & Cultural view of Disease & Illness in terms of Cultural Belief Systems

Disease vs Illness

  • Disease is something that is clinical

  • Can be classified

  • It is a Medical Entity

  • Illness is Different, Socially & Culturally constituted display of Learned & Shared patterns of perceiving, experience & coping with symptoms.

  • It is lived experiences

  • Human drama of how the person views their illness

  • How they got the illness

  • How they cope with the illness

  • Illness varies from society to society, group to group, culture to culture

  • The way people view illness differs from society to society

  • This is influenced through cultural belief systems

  • Culture will inform people how to view disease & illness

Disease in Relation to Ecology, Culture & History

  • Interactionist, interact together to give certain populations around the world a Disease Profile

  • What Disease affects that population group and the reasons that surround the spread of the disease

  • As not every population group is subjected to the same disease, patterns differ from society to society

  • Certain diseases affect more the poorer than the middle/upper class

  • Need to look at the ecology i.e the environment where the population group resides at

  • Example: Malaria- more in tropical regions, T.B more in the Black population need look at the history of South Africa to understand WHY

  • Interactionist view: look at Ecology, Culture & History to determine a Disease Profile

  • They view disease holistically, other contributing factors to the spread of disease.


  • Is the study of the relationship of organisms in the environment

  • Humans have learnt to adapt to certain organisms that exist in the environment e.g germ virus

  • They have adapted to co-exist over time

  • About 80% of illness that come into your bodies can be fought of by minimal care

  • Proper nutrition and rest can fight of the flu & cold virus, as the is no cure for the flu or cold virus

  • 20% that does reamin does need medical intervention e.g T.B, Cholera, Malaria etc..

  • Our Immune System holds virus back within us but some times it weakens and the virus come

  • Most often enough we are able to fight of illness

  • Our Natural Defense (Immune System) has evolved & adapted over time

  • Which gives us our 80% capability to fight of these viruses


  • As the Ecology & Culture changes new germs start to evolve

  • Our bodies need to put up a fight

  • It is through Industrialization that new illness as come about that our bodies struggle to fight them off

  • As people move from rural to urban settings their disease profile changes

  • Now introduced to other diseases n illness

  • Major pollution in the urban areas, more people getting sick

  • Stress is also another issue that impact on health

Disease of Affluence

  • Affects more the industrialized countries

  • See the rise of Heart Disease, High Blood Pressure, Diabetes, Cancer, Strokes, Chronic Lung Disease etc..

  • These Disease accounts for 75% of all deaths in urban areas and in rural areas accounts for 45%

  • This is associated with lifestyle change

Contact Webmaster | View the Promotion of Access to Information Act | View our Privacy Policy
© University of KwaZulu-Natal: All Rights Reserved