Hi. My name is Alexis, and I am a Medical Anthropologist.
WHAT? Well I’m no Indiana Jones nor a dinosaur specialist (although I do know more about archaeology and paleontology than your average joe). What then IS medical anthropology?
Well for starters, anthropology is the study of people. There are four main branches— archaeology (think Egypt or Indiana Jones but less action), physical/biological anthropology (think Lucy or ‘Bones’), linguistic anthropology (languages), and cultural anthropology (the study of culture, often people go and live with different populations). There is also an emerging fifth branch, applied anthropology. Applied anthropology takes all of that anthropological knowledge and puts its to work… to apply to the lives of people… to help people.
Medical anthropology is a bit more specific and is nestled between cultural, biological, and applied.
The one sentence medical anthropologists describe the field is this: it looks at the intersections of culture, biology, and power and how that interferes with the medical system… usually bringing light to issues that are otherwise unseen.
I like to say it’s essentially public health except a little more holistic in nature. Nothing is black or white. We address the gray.
I have a few examples:
Someone who has a low socioeconomic status (I’ll call it SES) often has a harder time accessing things such as health care. So let’s say that this issue is addressed by the local government or an organization by having a free clinic where the person can go seek help.
The person is able to make it to the clinic. But a few scenarios may occur:
A) The person is given medicine that the doctor says “must be taken with food”. The person is food insecure, making taking the medicine with meals difficult. Treatment fails.
B) The person is given medicine that the doctor says to “take 3 times a day, and to avoid acidic foods an hour before and after”. The patient may not trust the doctor due to cultural differences or doesn’t understand the doctor fully due to a language barrier. Treatment fails.
C) The person is given medicine that “must be refrigerated”, the person is homeless, and has no access to a refrigerator. Medicine spoils, treatment fails.
Addressing these scenarios, and how we can work to make sure the treatments don’t fail– these are jobs for medical anthropologists. Most medical anthropologists work directly with the people they want to help by getting to know them better– whether that’s through ethnography or qualitative research– the better you know the lived situation, the better you can truly address it from the source.
Myself? I like food, and nutrition. My passions lie in helping others access healthful foods. Food security, food deserts, and food waste are all areas that bring me passion. I am happy to be a medical anthropologist so I can work towards addressing these issues. Right now I am volunteering with Eat SF’s Vouchers for veggies program to help (in any way I can!) with this issue. The program gives out fresh produce vouchers to people who are low income, elderly, and disabled. The results have been amazing.
My thesis (oh that lovely study and paper that kept me preoccupied last year) was regarding food and work. I’ll copy it’s abstract below:
Millennials have now surpassed all other generations as the primary age group in the workforce. This comes in the midst of the rise of alternative work arrangements, defined here as part-time work, underemployment, or self-employment. The interrelationships between work, health, and food choices have been well-demonstrated, yet there is little research on how millennials are impacted by this rising type of employment. This research describes how millennials in alternative work arrangements exercise limited agency over their food choices. Alternative work often results in millennials choosing foods based on factors such as time, ease, and cost. Because food choice is linked to nutrition, productivity and health outcomes, this discussion is important to both the public health and the economic sectors.
So that is a little more about me, & medical anthropology! If anyone has any more questions, I would loveeee to answer them. Shoot me an email, I won’t bite!