AG Medical Anthropology

Oktober 2001 / Göttingen

DGV-Tagung 2001, Göttingen:
„Verflechtungen. Ethnologische Perspektiven zu Gesellschaften im Prozess weltweiter Transformation.“

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.



Els van Dongen „The rattle of genes. Divination and magic in biomedicine“
Walther Bruchhausen „Care of the Souls and Care of the Bodies – Changing Paradigms in the History of Anthropology on Africa“
Elisabeth Schömbucher-Kusterer „Devil’s dance, healing ritual, cultural performance. A history of interpretation of possession cults in South Asia“
William Sax „Religion and Healing in the Central Himalayas“
Peter Kaiser „Buddhist ethics and modern medical science: A case study from Thailand“


„The rattle of genes. Divination and magic in biomedicine“

Els van Dongen
Medical Anthropology Unit/University of Amsterdam
The Netherlands

When Susan Reynolds Whyte stated in 1989 that phenomena of human suffering were increasingly interpreted in biomedical terms and categories, instead of in terms of the discourse of affliction, she may have suggested that the world of human suffering and misery became a „disenchanted“ world. Medical high technical devices and inventions merge deeply into the lives of people (not only the high tech, but all biomedical practices and explanations). Those techniques are powerful high status paraphernalia in controlling and healing not only illness, but also human life. They have deep impact on human imagery, fantasy, thinking and conceptualisation of personhood, life, death, risk and human relationships. High tech is power, which mobilises moral issues and ethical debates. It will forcefully renew the nature-nurture debate, and the body as „object-agent“ controversy. However, the ‚tech‘ resembles other human techniques which are used to explain human misery and suffering.

In my presentation, I will focus on three cases of medical high tech: the Human genome project/genetic engineering, tissue engineering and body transplants. I will argue that the new tech is magic because it shows family resemblances with the diviner’s rattles of bones, the songs of witches, or the beating of the drum. Both need technical devices, they want to influence the course of things, they are animated and powerful, they are metaphoric and symbolic, and they want to control the powers that usually are beyond control. My main argument will be that the so-called „disenchantment of the world“ by biomedicine does not hold. I will discuss several consequences for human belief systems and behaviour.


„Care of the Souls and Care of the Bodies – Changing Paradigms in the History of Anthropology on Africa“

Walther Bruchhausen

Based on ethnographic accounts on German East Africa and Tanganyika Territory as well as comparative ethnological works of that time, the competing definitions – religious or medical – of African concepts and practices around the human constitution – its securing, impairment and restoring – are explored. As in the „Second German Empire“ (1871-1918) at the same time ethnology became an academic discipline, the major German missionary societies started their work in Africa and biomedicine emerged as a distinct type of medicine, an interaction between these developments was inevitable. When the conditions for ethnology, Christian missions and medicine again deeply changed in the inter-war-period concomitant changes in the preference of paradigms occurred. Thus the historical analysis might throw some light on the question what social and cultural conditions in the Western world make the description of foreign practices prone to either medical or religious interpretation.

The development of European mainstream medicine is characterised by repeated secularisation. Both ancient Hippocratic medicine and modern science include moves away from religion and alleged superstition. This increasing division was the intellectual background of those German pioneers – mainly missionaries, medical doctors and military men, who shaped our views on the people in Africa. Their perceptions varied accordingly: medical doctors identified „physicians“ in the very same way as African experts („waganga“) were qualified as „magicians“, „sorcerers“ and „priests“ by ethnographers of other professional provenience. Their material means, „dawa“, was judged according to its pharmacological properties and if „ineffective“ discarded as cheat or magic. Magic or religious rituals were rather left for investigation to the missionaries and anthropologists. The academic field of African health-related behaviour was irreversibly divided, on the empirical as well as on the analytical level.

The two domains of research thus split developed in very different ways. Yet they still had in common that both were also determined by practical and not purely academic interests. The study of native religion, often including ideas and practices of healing, was advanced vigorously by missionaries and contributed to the academic establishment of anthropology in Germany. The structure-functionalist view of the African way of life as collectivist and determined by the religious system made religious concepts a more promising tool for understanding and controlling African society than exclusively health related-behaviour which seemed rather individually important. Therefore research on native medicine remained rare. When it generally achieved more favourable attention in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s publications were often written by doctors connected to the Nazi movement. In Germany the long-term result of this short intermezzo is obvious: As Africa after 1945 had many German missionaries and few German doctors, as in Germany a kind of Christian revival was taking place and as all those issues favoured by the Nazis were discredited, it seems little wonder that the paradigm of religion maintained its supremacy also in German anthropology after World War II.


„Devil’s dance, healing ritual, cultural performance. A history of interpretation of possession cults in South Asia“

Elisabeth Schömbucher-Kusterer
Südasien-Institut, Universität Heidelberg

Different forms of possession, either by gods or goddesses, or by malevolent spirits and demons, have fascinated observers of Indian culture since long. An overview on the history of interpretation shows a wide range of different approaches. Early observers, such as the Dutch missionary Bartolomäus Ziegenbalg, described the Tamil tiriyattam or teyyam as devil’s dance, a superstitious practice of sorcerers to worship demons. Whereas Ziegenbalg and other missionaries accepted the existence of personified evil forces such as demons and interpreted possession as an ecstatic religious practice, though in a negative sense, the functional anthropological approaches of the 1960s and 70s interpreted possession metaphorically, as something which has a different social meaning. It was argued, that the ecstatic experience of possession is ‚used‘ by persons to attain another purpose, such as ameliorating their social status, getting relief from psychic stress or medical problems. This fits the fact that mostly women, and sometimes men of marginal social status get possessed by malevolent spirits and demons. Being possessed by spirits, they get the aufmerksamkeit of society and their situation may be relieved. On the other hand, in the interpretation of possession mediumship, in which ritual or ecstatic experts get possessed by a god or a goddess, the healing aspect stands in the foreground.

More recent anthropological approaches try to consider the indigenous viewpoint as close as possible. This socalled performative approach views possession as a phenomenon which expresses itself through language. Thus, the interpretative stress lies in a linguistic analysis of what is said in which way and how are these spoken and performed texts interpreted. To understand what is being said and performed during states of possession, it is necessary to include cosmological and religious concepts of the people concerned.


„Religion and Healing in the Central Himalayas“

William Sax
Südasien-Institut, Universität Heidelberg

The medicalisation of religion is an academic phenomenon that owes more to institutional and funding agendas than to theoretical ones. Nevertheless it can have productive consequences, insofar as it requires us to look at familiar phenomena in new ways. As an example, I discuss the healing cult of Bhairav in North India’s newest state, Uttaranchal. In this „cult of affliction,“ somatic symptoms are often healed by means of ritual and musical performance. I argue that the cult can best be understood by combining „Performative“ approaches from the anthropology of religion with the „Critical-Interpretive“ approach of Medical Anthropology


„Buddhist ethics and modern medical science: A case study from Thailand“
(Abstract may get slightly revised)

Peter Kaiser
Institut für vergleichende Religionswissenschaft, Universität Tübingen

In 1993 a famous monk in Thailand died after weeks of treatment at an ICU (intensive care unit), aged 86. Medical treatment against the will of the patient was subsequently discussed in public country-wide. A survey was conduced with Asian and western physicians to get an idea about the opinion of medical professionals on this subject and to illuminate the question: is there an impact of religious or ethical background on decision making in medical therapy. In the opinion of Buddhist physicians the religious background plays a strong role in their private lives as well as in their professional work, what could not be confirmed by the data presented. Despite of the strong influence of Buddhism on daily life, in (urban) intellectuals -here MDs – at present the Buddhist teachings seem to exert comparatively little influence on professional decision making and – ethics as the Christian religion does in the west.



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