As medical anthropologists, we have an important stake in reforming and moralizing health care practices when the opportunity arises. What do we accomplish by aspiring to this lofty goal? We are privileged in a sense to do this work because our methodological approaches allow us to collect knowledge about the various healing practices that exist simultaneously (biomedicine and traditional healing), we can concern ourselves with documenting strengths and weaknesses of systems of “caring”, and we have access to analyzing the historical processes and myths that propagate culturally specific illness narratives. Lock’s definition of local biologies in “The turn of life – Unstable meanings” (1995) got me thinking about the ways in which people of various cultures understand their relationship to illness and the larger implications of socially stigmatize or legitimize that experience. To start off this discussion, I reflected on folk healing or folk medicine, which typically anchors illnesses through cultural interpretation.
Traditional healing takes on many forms. The first video shows a curandero conducting a limpiada or spiritual cleansing ceremony. The curandero/a proceeds to smack herbs deep onto the body. Not shown on the video, but afterwards, he will proceed to rub a raw unbroken egg, which is thought to absorb energy, up and down the skin to determine the potential ailment and provide a diagnosis. Most of the time, their explanation is that a person has mal de ojo (evil eye), which is caused when someone looks at you maliciously or with jealousy. This negative energy, physically manifests itself into stress, migraines, insomnia, etc.
From the comments, there are various questions about the authenticity of this activity. You can buy a kit and become trained in this form of activity in just a few weeks (see link to product if you are interested); but suspending disbelief for a minute, how would an anthropologist go about interpreting and analyzing this phenomenon? What assumptions are we making about the culture that engages in these practices? What implications (if any) exist for the individual body, for the social body, and political body when people have carved out a space to justify such an explanation? Is it useful to utilize our research as a means of disseminating knowledge about folk medicine (or other findings) where biomedicine (or an alternate form) already exists and works?
This article introduces the story of Lia Lee, daughter of Hmong refugees suffering from “quag dab peg” or epilepsy. Observe the tension between Lia’s parents and the rest of the world as each party tries to make sure Lia is cared for adequately. Oths (1999) describes mythological concerns about the shortcomings of research investigating culturally specific illness. In particular, she does not see the individual as a good unit of analysis. What become the appropriate scale to look at a culture specific illness? Despite being an ethnography of one person, the “Spirit Catches You and You Fall” (1997) does a tremendous job at looking at the family’s interpretation of caring for their severely epileptic child, the Hmong and American assessments of Lia’s condition, the social implications that followed because of the collision of these two cultures. How is disease, illness, and healing changing in the wake of migration and globalization?
When thinking about culturally specific illnesses, I came across anorexia nervosa and bulimia as examples of modern culturally bound disorders specific to industrial nations. This had me reflect on my own understanding of what I look for when thinking about the universality of particular experiences. Maybe it is naïve to think that eating disorders and body issues are a shared experience across the world, but I realized I thought of it this way until I read Lock’s work on aging and menopause which illuminated me to think that phenomenon that is familiar to me, may be perceived, experienced, and spoken about differently for various reasons by someone else. If I am conducting fieldwork, I need to be especially conscientious of this and read between the lines, attempt to utilize cultural relativism as a framework, otherwise I will not be adequately acknowledging or describing the realities that I attempt to capture.