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  Ethnomedicine is the exploration of indigenous health systems. The efforts of people to deal with problems, accidents and illnesses give rise to a number of overlapping systems that can be broadly compared to the ‘developed’ notion of medicine; but ideas about what constitutes a healthy or sick person vary greatly.

Ethnomedicine has replaced the term medical anthropology to emphasize the study of beliefs and practices other than those embodied in conventional scientific medicine. Medical anthropology draws on both medicine and anthropology to interpret cultural understandings of health in different cultures. Originally focused on the health practices and ways of explaining disease in technologically primitive communities from the perspective of a Western biomedical model, it now looks at the multiplicity of explanations for individual and collective misfortune, and at how healers and patients are socialized in the context of these systems of thought.

These systems often borrow elements from each other, and cannot be seen as mutually exclusive—particularly since the introduction of the Western system of biomedicine, which has generally had profound implications for local knowledge. For instance, the increasing professionalization of the healer has significantly changed power relations in some societies. The perceived need to create specialists along the lines of Western medicine, who have access to a body of knowledge (usually contained in written texts), has changed the relationship between religious specialist and client, who previously may have shared a body of common knowledge according to which the client could actively influence the therapeutic process.

Humoral systems of medicine, which are practised virtually worldwide, and were once the basis of European medicine, view individual and collective dysfunction as a result of lack of harmony in the fundamental forces believed to make up the natural world including humans. Traditional Chinese medicine, for example, treats this imbalance of yin and yang energy through dietary adjustment, herbal preparations and treatments such as acupuncture which are designed to rebalance the vital energy, or chi, within the body. (The government in China is consciously seeking to preserve traditional Chinese medicine from the influence of biomedicine.) CL

See also ethnopsychiatry; humours.Further reading A. Kleinman (ed.) Patients and Healers in the Context of Culture.



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