Medical Anthropology: Cause and consequences of Illness - SE549

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Module delivery information

Location Term Level1 Credits (ECTS)2 Current Convenor3 2020 to 2021
(version 2)
Spring 6 15 (7.5) DR A Waldstein checkmark-circle


The module addresses the causes, effects, treatments and meanings of health and illness. Health and illness are of major concern to most of us, irrespective of our cultural, social and biological contexts. In this module we will begin with an overview of the major theoretical paradigms and methods in medical anthropology. We will then focus on how and why different diseases have affected various human populations throughout history and the ways perceptions of what constitutes health and illness vary greatly, cross-culturally as well as within one particular cultural domain. This will be followed by an overview of ethnomedical systems as a response to illness and disease. Anthropological studies in the sphere of medicine originally tended to concentrate on other people's perceptions of illness, but have increasingly come to focus on the difficulties encountered when trying to define what constitutes health in general. Anthropology has also turned its attention to a critical examination of biomedicine: originally thought of as providing a 'value free, objective and true’ assessment of various diseases (epidemiology), biomedicine is now itself the subject of intense anthropological scrutiny and is seen as the expression of a culturally specific system of values. The module will also consider practical applications of medical anthropology.


This module appears in the following module collections.

Contact hours



BSc Biological Anthropology and associated programmes
BSc Anthropology and associated programmes
BA Social Anthropology and associated programmes
Available as a wild module

Method of assessment

Essay (2000 words) (30%)
Annotated Bibliography (2000 words) (20%)
Examination, 2 hours (50%)

Indicative reading

Johnson & Sargeant "Medical Anthropology"
Turner, B. "Medical Power and Social Knowledge"
Douglas, M. "Risk and Blame"
Turner Medical Power and Social Knowledge
Joralemon Exploring Medical Anthropology
McElroy and Townsend Medical Anthropology in Ecological Perspective

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

Critically understand the development of the anthropology of medicine and its relationship to other fields of anthropology (such as kinship, ritual, body, economics, politics, environment, consumption).
Critically describe the wide range of variation in cultural models and technologies of medicine and health as reported in ethnography.
Understand anthropological debates concerning health inequality, the relationship between health and the body, the historical development of western medicine and the relationship between biomedicine and other forms.
Critically assess the context and distribution of disease and illness and human responses to them at both individual and population levels.
Interpret varied information on aspects of human social, cultural and biological diversity in medical domains.
Apply medical anthropological knowledge to a variety of practical situations, personal and professional.


  1. Credit level 6. Higher level module usually taken in Stage 3 of an undergraduate degree.
  2. ECTS credits are recognised throughout the EU and allow you to transfer credit easily from one university to another.
  3. The named convenor is the convenor for the current academic session.
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