Ethno Medicine, Definitions Anthropology YouTube Lecture Handouts

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  • Although not always recognized, a body of beliefs about disease, its relation to other aspects of life, its causes and cures exist in all human groups. These health behaviours and their behavioural derivatives have evolved over years as adaptive responses to the particular diseases that makes a culture sustainable.
  • Medical anthropologists have long showed curiosity for the health beliefs and behaviours which exist outside the mainstream modern medicinal practices. Ethno-medicine is the formalized area of study which grew out of this curiosity.
  • Ethno-medicine is concerned primarily with the description of the notions people have about health and illness, and about the behaviours they undertake in search of causes. Ethno-medicine has also been concerned with the behaviours of healers and curers in non-literate cultures, their selection, training and the efficacy of the treatments.


  • Huges (1968) defines ethno-medicine as those beliefs and practices relating to disease which are the products of indigenous cultural development and not explicitly derived from the conceptual frame-work of modern medicine.
  • Following Huges՚s definition, ethno-medicine is applied more broadly to refer to the “culturally oriented studies of illness” . Concern of ethno-medical investigator is to explain “an illness as an event having cultural significance” (Fabrega 1974) .
  • Nichter (1992) defines ethno-medical enquiry as the “study of how well-being and suffering are experienced bodily as well as socially, the multi-vocality of somatic communications and processes of healing as they are contextualized and directed toward the person, household, community and state, land and cosmos” .

Forms of Ethno-Medicinal Enquiries

Mark Nichter (1992) delineates the various forms of enquiry, which constitute ethno-medical studies. They are:

  • Descriptive studies of folk, non-biomedical forms of healing, including a documentation of health beliefs, notions of ethno-physiology, etiology, dietetics, pharmacopoeia technology and ritual.
  • Historical studies of disease and medical treatment; such studies examine the relationship between disease conceptualizations, systems of healing and moral values and social orders of civilization.
  • Ethnographic studies of the authentic (pure and pristine) forms of cure and explanation of disease before they are lost by contact with modern society,
  • Studies of continuities and discontinuities in medical systems and health cultures, it also includes popular interpretations of expert systems of knowledge and changing perceptions of health.
  • Studies of health care with reference to differential categories such as age, gender etc. , and also studies of health and disease in pluralistic systems.
  • Studies of relationship between illness beliefs and social norms, wherein the role of sickness in maintaining social order is emphasized.

Importance of Ethno-Medicines

  • Ethno-medicinal studies are significant for the discovery of new crude drugs from indigenous reported medicinal plants by the identification and documentation of the indigenous medicinal knowledge of plants and herbal remedies used as folk medicines in most of the remote and rural areas all over the world.
  • Where modern westernized medicinal treatments fail to cure certain diseases, traditional folk medicines or ethno-medicines tend to show effective result in curing such diseases.
  • Application of ethno-medicinal remedies is most accepted among the residents of non-literate traditional societies who are well accustomed to the naturally collected herbal specimens of their own local environment and seek out their traditional healing methods instead of the modern medical aid being offered.
  • Traditional medicine can be effectively used in humanitarian aid, but creates the idea of instilling self-sustainable medical communities when aid workers leave. With western medical practices, once the aid workers are gone, there is no one left to continue providing modern medical care. However, by infusing modern medical practices with ethno-medicine, native healers can continue these medical practices long after aid workers have gone. This can help expand the effectiveness of aid and exponentially increase the benefits for aid recipients.

Problems and Concerns

  • A major misconception among the westernized modern medical practitioners is that ethno-medicines are ineffective and associate them with the ideas of “magic” and “witch doctors” .
  • A study conducted by Daniel Fabricant and Norman Farnsworth in the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives found that the body of existing ethno-medical knowledge has led to great developments in health care and with the rapid industrialization and modernization all over the globe and the loss of ethnic cultures and customs, such folk practices have been under threat.
  • Preserving traditional ethno-medicinal practices should therefore be of great importance to medical aid workers. Aid workers should be respectful of traditional ways. Many of these medical remedies are concurrent with the findings of modern science. By inaccurately dismissing traditional methods inferior or useless, aid workers are encouraging victims to reject their own culture. These kinds of ethno-centric behaviours from the humanitarian aid industry will be detrimental to the cultures of developing and underdeveloped countries.


  • The benefits of ethno-medicine cannot be ignored. For residents of developing and under-developed countries, traditional medicine is preferred and can ultimately be more effective when providing aid. Aid organizations must revisit their practices and work to include these traditional medical methods.
  • In such way, medical aid can be more effective and last even after aid workers have left the crisis. Modern aid workers must work to lose their ethnocentric tendencies and embrace the benefits of incorporating traditional medicine into their practices.

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