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16.1: Prelude to Health and Medicine

What does it mean to be “healthy”? It may seem odd to ask the question, but health is not a universal concept and each culture values different aspects of well-being. At the most basic level, health may be perceived as surviving each day with enough food and water, while other definitions of health may be based on being free of diseases or emotional troubles. Complicating things further is the fact that that each culture has a different causal explanation for disease. For instance, in ancient Greece health was considered to be the product of unbalanced humors or bodily fluids. The four humors included black bile, phlegm, yellow bile, and blood. The ancient Greeks believed that interactions among these humors explained differences not only in health, but in age, gender, and general disposition. Various things could influence the balance of the humors in a person’s body including substances believed to be present in the air, changes in diet, or even temperature and weather. An imbalance in the humors was believed to cause diseases, mood problems, and mental illness.1

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes that the health of individuals and communities is affected by many factors: “where we live, the state of our environment, genetics, our income and education level, and our relationships with friends and family.” 2 Research conducted by the WHO suggests that these characteristics play a more significant role in affecting our health than any others, including having access to health care. For this reason, anthropologists who are interested in issues related to health and illness must use a broad holistic perspective that considers the influence of both biology and culture. Medical anthropology, a distinct sub-specialty within the discipline of anthropology, investigates human health and health care systems in comparative perspective, considering a wide range of bio-cultural dynamics that affect the well-being of human populations. Medical anthropologists study the perceived causes of illness as well as the techniques and treatments developed in a society to address health concerns. Using cultural relativism and a comparative approach, medical anthropologists seek to understand how ideas about health, illness, and the body are products of particular social and cultural contexts.