Anthropology is the study of humans and human life from their point of existence to modern day. But what does that really mean? What value do those words actually hold on everyday life? What worth could a study of culture and society possibly have in regards to friends, family, work, and various other parts of life? The answer is simply – everything. Anthropology explains how each person interacts with one another and helps to give an understanding why. Around the world, we observe that each group of people are bound by a set of societal norms and traditions that are unique to each culture, shared and learned from generation to generation. From one environment to the next, each group of people’s beliefs are separate of another’s, creating a division in behaviors and appearances that can often mislead and create confusion at first glance. From this need to explain the cultural barriers that divide the world’s people, anthropology brings understanding and calls for acceptance toward those of different origins. Among the various fields anthropology explores, I will examine in this paper two topics and their significance in our world today, medical anthropology and urban anthropology.
Arguably one of the most-impactful branches of anthropology, medical anthropology is changing the quality of care of patients receive across the globe by demanding change in the current standards in the health care industry. Medical anthropology helps to answer questions about a person’s health and wellness by understanding the impact of the relative biological and cultural factors of the surrounding environment. This study asserts that there is a clear, testable correlation between one’s overall health and one’s cultural adaptations, such as politics, economics, linguistics, and so on. Through medical anthropology, medical professionals are able to gain a greater insight of a patient’s needs and how to better diagnose and treat them, taking into consideration their various cultural influences. We see many examples in today’s society of a need for the application of the medical anthropology, such as in the current escalating trends across the globe of people with mental illnesses.
In the cases of mass shootings in the United States since the 1970s, studies show that a reported 60% of the perpetrators suffered from a form of mental disease (MacLeish & Metzl, 2015). The demand to address the mental health crisis has become a major talking point and a global focus to New York Times writer and anthropology professor T.M. Luhrmann in her recent article, “The Violence in Our Heads.” In the article, Luhrmann summarizes the differences in American and Indian patients who suffer from schizophrenia. American patients, she concludes, suffer from voices and delusions that are more violent than that of patients from India. American patients reported torturous, violent, even suicidal or homicidal hallucinations, while patients from India with the same diagnosis reported being told to perform common house chores, or at worst were given lascivious insults. If the voices schizophrenics hear are subjective, how is it possible that there is such a contrast in the delusions? Luhrmann, a knowledgeable anthropologist, believes culture directly plays a role in what voices each schizophrenic patient hears. Through medical anthropology, medical professionals can assert that the environment and culture in which each patient derives plays a direct part in the level of malevolence each patient endures and consequently their overall quality of life. Subsequently, this understanding gives a greater insight as to how to better treat each patient and stop the voices more effectively. If this same anthropological consideration were applied in other medical fields, it follows that doctors would be closer to finding more cures and more-effective treatments for today’s ailments and diseases.
Equal in importance, urban anthropology studies the effects of culture in urban areas. Unlike other fields of anthropology, urban anthropology focuses itself solely to environments that serve as major metropolitan population areas. This branch of anthropology asserts that because the majority of the world’s population can be found in cities, it would follow that the greatest cultural impacts can be observed in an urban setting. Urban anthropology attempts to understand the impacts of globalization, technology, law and politics, communication, and human movement in larger. These impacts can prove to be negative or positive to societies, as seen in the form of drugs, crime, and/or poverty. One modern application of urban anthropology is the study of homeless addicts and the cultural restraints that impact their lives.
In their 2009 video, “Next Door But Invisible: The World of Homelessness and Drug Addiction,” medical anthropologist Phillippe Bourgois and UC graduate Jeff Schonberg expose the decaying conditions in which the common heroin addict lives. “Next Door But Invisible” shows a complex society based on trade, emotional-dependency and malady. The video displays brutal imagery of a cause-effect relationship between the unsanitary lives of addicts and the toll taken on the body in the form of illness and disease outbreak. Bourgois and Schonberg also submit that in the life of a homeless heroin addict, encounters with law enforcement are a guarantee. Because of the fear of facing the legal consequences of their lifestyle choices, the video suggests that many homeless addicts chose to evade police interaction, further increasing the exposure to unsafe, unsanitary environmental conditions. This perpetual circle of consequences and bad choices prolongs the overall poor life of this group of people, all in part due to their cultural and environmental factors. If one were to recognize the dramatic impact of the cultural constraints on today’s homeless and addicted as represented in “Next Door But Invisible,” it is possible that a more-effective treatment method could be established to save lives and end addiction.
In the course description, it is stated that “through discussions of the concept of culture and examinations of the various components of culture – such as subsistence, economic, kinship, political systems and religion – this course demonstrates the diversity of the world’s cultures” (Cameron, 2017). The Intro to Cultural Anthropology course description also affirms that “students come away with an appreciation for this diversity and greater insight into their own culture” (Cameron, 2017). In my sixteen weeks pursuing the topics of ethnocentrism, the holistic anthropological perspective, applied anthropology and culture, I initially faced difficulty in applying some of the coursework to the people and lives of those who immediately surround me. So foreign to me were the foraging and cultivating cultures of Africa and Australia, the polygynous and polyandrous relationships in Tibet and Africa and the caste system of India … But after applying a few of the objectives of the homework and cultural observation assignments, I found that I could make connections between the world I knew and the world I was trying to understand.
The first Cultural Observation Assignment we faced in class challenged us to apply the cultural concepts we had just learned to our everyday lives. Our objective in the assignment, as was stated in the directions, was to “…demonstrate that even simple, everyday thoughts and actions [are] frequently guided by what our culture has taught us” (Cameron, 2017). At first, I believed that I honestly stood no chance in completing such a daunting and intimidating task. How would it be possible to compare the people we study in our text book to everyday life? Surely these two worlds did not hold anything in common. By the second cup of coffee however, I began to think back to all of the instances at the hospital where I work of strange occurrences and times that had taken place with people of different backgrounds. Then like puzzle pieces, the connections began to fall into place. I was faced with the realization that the strange behaviors, mannerisms, and funny ways in which the staff and patients all interacted might all be explained through culture. Memories and stories, added with the necessary research, gave me the basic background to understand the patients and staff with whom I interacted and worked with every day.
This added understanding of culture, cultural constraints, cultural values and norms has granted insight into the patients I serve every day. Like the anthropologists in our textbook, I was given the challenge of facing a new culture with cultural relativism and respect, despite the urge to give into ethnocentricity. The information that I gathered for the very first cultural observation alone, for example, provided a monumental and significant impact on me as a worker in the medical profession. For example, I learned that in Asian cultures, it is custom in a medical office setting to avoid expressing confusion, and that because of this taboo it is appropriate to remain silent and not ask questions at all. I have learned that in Asian culture, the family is a strong unit, and that they often travel together as one and chose to elect one family member as the spokesperson. These traits are very unique to this culture, and in my Cultural Observation Assignment I gave a specific example of how I encountered this first-hand at my place of work, not knowing then why or how the group behaved in such a way. I learned how it is typical of women of Russian origin to be outspoken, well-dressed, and independent, a cultural norm that helped explain a cold memory of an encounter with a Russian patient who told me my eyebrows were “wrong.” Further, I learned in writing my Final Research Project paper that efforts are being made to improve our understanding of other cultures in hospitals. The push to apply medical anthropology has reached the largest medical system in Illinois, and during my interview with one of the doctors I cited for the Research Project, I discovered that the same cultural lessons I was learning in class were also being taught to doctors and administrative staff. It was important for me to see that as a student, the need for medical anthropology was not just in paper text books, but also in the same world I worked and lived in.
Anthropology, in the most-basic sense, is the study of why humans do what they do. In my sixteen weeks in Intro to Cultural Anthropology, I have explored a vast range of different cultures, societies, economies, and people from the safety of my computer at home. From the desk, I was able to learn about social behaviors, cultural structures, different norms and traditions that I had never known before. While learning ethnocentrism and attempting to apply cultural relativism, I slowly began to learn the ethical and holistic responsibilities of anthropology. For me, the educational turning point came after finally seeing that the no-longer foreign cultural constraints of the text book could be seen as close as the office. Shortly after a few homework assignments I began to learn that anthropology did offer an explanation to why this patient said this, or why this patient acted like that. I was able to converse with doctors I work with about their feelings on medical anthropology, and listen to their first-hand accounts of how anthropology has played a role in their lives. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the value in anthropology for me was not what I could see at my computer screen, but rather what I experienced and felt out in the real world. Undoubtedly, it will be those lessons that will continue on with me long after this course has come to an end.
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