October 2001 / Göttingen

Panel “Medical Anthropology”: “From Religion to Medicine – and back again?”

Our keynote speaker, Susan Reynolds Whyte, stated in 1989 that a shift had taken place in the anthropological writings on Africa of the 1970s and 80s. phenomena of illness and healing, that were once classified as “affliction” within the Anthropology of Religion, were increasingly interpreted in biomedical terms and categories. At our panel, we want to re-examine this shift with regard to a wider geographical setting and explore the relationship between the Anthropologies of Religion and Medicine from the perspective of current developments in the fields. There are particularly three criteria which are central to our panel’s discussion. On the one hand, the common ground of the fields is explored. If, in fact, they refer to the same object of research, it is asked to what extent the categories of Medical Anthropology (e.g. medical systems) are still valid, or if there should rather be a “metadiscourse” for the two fields.

On the other hand, the differences between the fields are emphasised and it is critically asked for the circumstances which led to the development of two separate research traditions. The question is put if this separation is mainly based on the analytical level, or on the empirical level as well, and which consequences the use of the respective theoretical framework has for the representation of the same phenomenon.

Thirdly, the relationship between the approaches is seen in the context of recent developments in both working traditions, and it is asked how new theoretical approaches in these fields can widen each other’s perspectives. In Medical Anthropology, attention has increasingly been paid to the body and physical suffering. Moreover, the field has been opened up for the exploration of wider social contexts (e.g., through the concept of social suffering). In the Anthropology of Religion, the concentration on systemic approaches gave way to the focus on individuals, on agency and performance.

The presentations at our panel treat these basic issues from various perspectives. they include contributions on the development of theories on spirit possession in South Asia, on the relationship between religion and medicine in Colonial East Africa, on Buddhist ethics and medical science in Thailand, and on “magical” practices in our own culture’s high tech biomedicine. With the help of these contributions, we want to make a statement on current working positions in the two fields and on the nature of their relationship twelve years after Whyte’s publication. In the concluding discussion, common research questions which might become important for both fields – for instance, the concentration on morals and ethics in the wider political contexts – are to be explored.


14.00 Uhr Einlaß
14.10 – 14.15 Begrüßung / Welcome (Angelika Wolf)
14.15 – 14.30 Einführung / Introduction (Hansjörg Dilger)
14.30 – 15.00 Els van Dongen “The rattle of genes. Divination and magic in biomedicine”
15.00 – 15.30 Walther Bruchhausen “Care of the Soul and Care of the Bodies – Changing Paradigms in the History of Anthropology on Africa”
15.30 – 16.00 Elsbeth Schömbucher-Kusterer “Devil’s dance, healing ritual, cultural performance. A History of interpretation of possession cults in South Asia”
16.00 – 16.30 Pause
16.30 – 17.00 William Sax “Religion and Healing in the Central Himalayas”
17.00 – 17.30 Peter Kaiser “Buddhist ethics and modern medical science. A case study from Thailand”
17.30 – 17.45 Zusammenfassung / Summary (Brigit Obrist van Eeuwijk)
17.45 – 18.45 Diskussion / Discussion