Throughout this historical tour of medical anthropology, a focus upon theory and practice with specific ethnographic examples demonstrates the variety of approaches that have constituted medical anthropological research over the years. Following the historical narrative, contemporary theoretical trends and controversies are explored in more depth.
This definition covers all the contemporary sites for medical anthropological study, and delineates the sub-field in terms of its current specialization, yet medical anthropology is a topic of study that has only recently, that is, within the last fifty years, become mature. The first half of the twentieth century, moreover, saw an anthropological concern with documenting the natural history of humanity—a preoccupation with ‘salvage ethnography,’ that is, with describing ‘primitive cultures’ in all of their aspects before they became part of an expanding global economy. Many ethnographic accounts aimed at describing a ‘whole culture,’ which entailed some discussion of health beliefs and practices, albeit as a means of elaborating on how the various aspects of the specific culture were functionally interrelated. Following the rapid expansion of a global capitalist economy, anthropologists turned their attention to specific cultural traits rather than striving to describe the ‘whole’ of any specific culture, as that would inevitably entail an ethnography of the whole world.