Culture Health and Systems of Healing

Home/ Culture Health and Systems of Healing
Course TypeCourse CodeNo. Of Credits
Foundation ElectiveSLS2SC0064

Semester and Year Offered: 3rdSemester Monsoon Semester 2013

Course Coordinator and Team: Dr UrfatAnjem Mir

Email of course coordinator:urfat[at]aud[dot]ac[dot]in

Pre-requisites: NA

Aim: This course aims to address some very basic questions in the field of health: Why do we have diverse medical Systems? Are there some common elements of health and healing practices in these diverse medical systems? Why disease and illness cannot be fully understood by treating them as biological in nature? Why should we look at health problems as complex biosocial processes? Why is it essential to study a range of factors like systems of belief, structures of social relationships and environmental conditions in the context of health problems?

In short, this course will discuss in detail the aspect of universal realities of disease and distress and how the systems of health care are socially, culturally and politically constructed. The aim is to enlighten students about the dynamics of individual and community health knowledge, relationship between public health problems and socio-cultural processes. It will also sharpen their understanding of the notion of healthy life worlds and lifestyle choices that diverse communities practice and seek to protect.

Course Outcomes:

By the end of this course, the learners will be able to:

  1. Know the definition of health and explain the various physical and social determinants of health.
  2. Critically analyse the different systems of healing and recognize the distinction between disease and illness.
  3. Explain the role of culture in shaping health outcomes and experiences and gain an understating of medical anthropological perspective of studying heath.
  4. Understand the relationship between social position and distribution of Diseases/ health problems througha criticallens to appreciate the link between health disparity and social inequalities.
  5. Write clear, well-formulated, analytic essay on health practices and problems

Brief description of modules/ Main modules:

Health as a concept is very central to the idea of human survival, thus a comprehensive understanding of the notions of health, illness, well-being, and health care systems and practices –especially in multi-cultural societies is vital. The course aims to introduce students to the foundations of health systems, different beliefs and behaviours, health related issues and challenges. The approach will be to examine the notion of health as culturally constructed means of representing and shaping the body, illness, disease and healing practices. Therefore, the course will broadly have three sections: theoretical perspectives, medical systems and the public health issues. In the first section, the course will examine the concepts of health, illness, disease and wellbeing by using the various theoretical perspectives- largely, medical anthropological. The medical anthropological perspective, because, it certainly draws on research formulated in other disciplines like, medical sociology, epidemiology, public health and history of medicine. Is there a dichotomy of ‘body’ and ‘mind’, and if so, how can we challenge it?

The second section will look at different medical systems and medical pluralism.

The third section will deal primarily with the contemporary problems of disease, illness, issues of public health and the global health problems. How the biological and socio-cultural evolution in response to environmental challenges has resulted into a complex human body. By drawing largely from ‘cases’ of health issues across cultures, the course will try to make it interesting for students – and challenge the common assumption of a student that there exists a gap between ‘theoretical’ and ‘real’ knowledge. It will keep focus on the human body and study the realities of human disease, illness, suffering and death in different cultural contexts.

Main Modules





What is health? Conceptions of Disease and illness,                     

Health and quality of life

Embodying health

Cultural definitions of anatomy and physiology


Theoretical Perspectives

Medical ecological theory

Cultural interpretive theory

Critical medical anthropology


Medical Systems and Health Care Pluralism         




Biomedicine as a system of medicine

Health care pluralism; Complementary and alternative medicines (CAM)


Nutrition and Health

Cultural classification of food

Food as medicine

Dietary changes and disease


Pain and Culture

Private and public pain

Social dimensions of pain


Health issues in Human populations                       

Health and environment

Gender cultures and health

Contemporary issues in health


Health disparity and Social inequality                                                        

Health and social disparity cross culturally

Health praxis and the struggle for a healthy world

Health and human rights

Public policy and health care









































Assessment Details with weights:

Assignment 1: Take home Assignment on understanding the meaning of health, health belief and practices in daily life. 25 % Weightage

Second Assignment on writing an essay on Medical Pluralism in Indian context25 % weightage

Third Assignment: A small study on any topic of learner’s interest in which the learnersare expected to study dietary and hygiene practices in relation to health of any community / people in neighbourhood.25% Weightage

Last assignment: A reflection paper based on learners reading of an ethnographic study on health to present a thoughtful analysis of health issues of communities with a focus on health disparity and social inequality. The purpose of this assignment is to make the learners read latest articles on these topics and critically comment on the nature and characteristics of the Health issues and the health disparity prevailing in India and suggest measures for improving health.25 Weightage

Reading List:

  • Cecil Helman(2007 edition). Culture , Health and Illness Hodder Arnold : A Member of the Hodder Headline Group and Oxford: Butterworth Heinmann (selected chapters)
  • Baer, Hans, A., Merrill, Singer, and Ida Susser. 2003. Medical Anthropology and the World System. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.
  • Cant, Sarah, and Ursula. 1999. A New Medical Pluralism: Alternative Medicine, Doctors, Patients and the State. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Farmer, Paul. 2005. Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Mcelroy, Ann, and Patricia, A., Townsend. 2009 (eds). Medical Anthropology in Ecological Perspective. USA: Westview Press
  • Sargent, Carolyn, F., and Thomas, M. Johnson (eds). 1996. Medical Anthropology: Contemporary Theory and Method. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger
  • Singer, Merrill, and Hans Baer. 2007. Introducing Medical Anthropology: A Discipline in Action. Plymouth, UK: AltaMira Press.
  • Womack, Mari. 2010. The Anthropology of Health and Healing. Plymouth, UK: AltaMira Press.
  • Marmot, M. 2011. Global Action on Social Determinants of Health. Bulletin of the
  • World Health Organization 89:702.

Additional Readings:

  • Rudolf Virchow: a) biography page from Harvard’s Contagion: Historical Views of Disease and Epidemics, at: and b) RMA “The
  • Charity Physician”.
  • Farmer, Paul. 2003. Chapter 1 “On Suffering and Structural Violence” (pp.29-50) and
  • Chapter 6 “Listening for Prophetic Voices: A Critique of Market-Based Medicine” (pp. 160-178) From: Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. Berkeley and Los Angeles: UC Press.
  • Krech, Rüdiger. 2011. Social determinants of health: practical solutions to deal with a well recognized issue. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 89:703.
  • Kleinman, Arthur. 1988. Chapter 1 “The Meaning of Symptoms and Disorders” (pp.3-30). From: The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Health & the Human Condition. New York: Basic Books.
  • Garrett, Laurie. 2007. The Challenge of Global Health. Foreign Affairs 86(1): 14-38.