Anthropology 253: Theory in Medical and Psychiatric Anthropology: Culture, Science and the Body

Harvard University, Spring 1999
Byron J. Good, Professor of Medical Anthropology,
Dept. of Social Medicine and Dept. of Anthropology
With Karen-Sue Taussig, Ph.D., Fellow, Dept. of Social Medicine

This course will review theoretical positions and debates in medical and psychiatric anthropology, with special attention to cultural studies of the biosciences and biomedicine and to recent critical and phenomenological accounts of the body. The course will provide a historical review of theoretical traditions in medical anthropology, focusing in particular on the interpretive tradition in medical anthropology and the cultural studies tradition in science studies, and will examine recent writing in the field at the interface of the two.

The format of the course will include discussion, commentaries, and occasional lectures. During the first hour, two students will lead a critical discussion of the required readings for that day. Course instructors will provide formal commentaries for the final 30 minutes of each class.

The course has three requirements. First, each student will be expected to participate in leading the discussion of required (and suggested) readings during one class period. Second, each student will be expected to write a brief precis -- a summary of critical thoughts that arise during your reading -- about several or all of the required readings for six classes. These should be left in my mail box (3rd floor, William James Hall) in quadruplicate at 5:00 each Monday afternoon, and will be used by instructors and discussion leaders to organize discussion for the day. Third, each student will be expected to write a final research paper (ca. 15-25 pages), reviewing theoretical issues related to some substantive matter of interest to the student or directly addressing a theoretical issue of relevance to medical anthropology. This paper will be due the last day of reading period. Students may wish to combine these three exercises, focusing their final paper on issues raised in their precis's and the readings of the week for which they are discussion leaders. Class participation and the precis's will contribute 40% and the research paper 60% to the final course grade.

Books ordered at the COOP include Byron Good, Medicine, Rationality and Experience; Gary Lee Downey and Joseph Dumit, Cyborgs & Citadels; Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good, American Medicine: The Quest for Competence; Thomas Csordas, The Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing; J. Crary and S. Kwinter, eds., Incorporations; Cheryl Mattingly, Healing Dramas and Clinical Plots: The Narrative Structure of Experience; Sarah Franklin, Embodied Progress; Richard Lewontin, Biology as Ideology; Lawrence Cohen, No Aging in India; Sandra Harding, The "Racial" Economy of Science.


Harvard University, Spring Semester 1999
Prof. Byron J. Good, with Karen-Sue Taussig


FEBRUARY 4: Introduction to the Course

  1. Provide a historical overview of theoretical approaches to the study of culture and illness, systems of healing, and comparative studies of medical knowledge. Discuss recent developments in cultural studies of science, particularly of the biosciences, biotechnology and biomedicine. Discuss new directions for medical anthropology that emerge from the joining of interpretive approaches, critical theory, and cultural studies of science.
  2. Discuss format and requirements of the class.

FEBRUARY 11: From Cyborgs & Citadels: Contemporary Writing at the Interface of Medical Anthropology and Cultural Studies of Science

Read and discuss recent articles that cross the boundaries between science studies and medical anthropology, including articles from Downey and Dumit, Cyborgs & Citadels: Anthropological Interventions in Emerging Sciences, Technologies and Medicines. Raise questions about theoretical sources of these essays and implications of the theoretical positions taken.

FEBRUARY 18: Competing Epistemologies, Competing Rationalities: Rationality, Relativism and Beyond

  1. Discuss why issues of epistemology are crucial for medical anthropology, with special reference to Medicine, Rationality and Experience.
  2. Review classic debates about the social construction of scientific knowledge in the sociology of science.
  3. Review recent critiques of these debates and suggestions for new directions for cultural studies of science. What questions do these raise for comparative studies of medical knowledge and practices?

FEBRUARY 25: Foundations for Interpretive Theories of Culture and Knowledge

MARCH 4: Cultural Phenomenology, Critical Phenomenology

  1. Discuss phenomenology as a method for investigating experience, critiques of phenomenology, and the potential for a 'critical phenomenology'.
  2. Examine Csordas's understanding of the body as creative source of experience and the locus of healing.
  3. Examine phenomenology as a means for exploring experiences of human suffering and illness.

MARCH 11: Ethnographic Writing On the Margins of Interpretive Theory (1)

MARCH 18: Ethnographic Writing On the Margins of Interpretive Theory (2): On the Position of Ethnographic Subject

MARCH 25: On Signs: Semiotics to Poststructuralism

  1. Review historical and theoretical foundations for post-structuralist theories of the subject and the cultural studies tradition.
  2. Discuss the different relations posited between subjects and semiotic systems (e.g. subject in language, subject as effect of language, genetic subject, split subject).
  3. Discuss some feminist inflections of gendered and otherwise politicized subjects.


APRIL 8: Cultural Studies of the Body, Ideology and Identity

  1. Review current theorizing of the body in medical anthropology.
  2. Review competing theories of ideology and subjectivity in relation to cultural studies and mass media.
  3. Examine contemporary attempts to account for the "ideology" of science and discuss on their value for medical anthropology.

APRIL 15: Narrativity, Justice and Bodies

  1. Review theories of narrativity in relation to experience, storytelling and history.
  2. Discuss strategies for writing about narratives with examples from medical anthropology, including clinical settings, personal experiences with illness, and political/ environmental disasters.

APRIL 22: Narratives and their Effects (Prof. Mary-Jo Good)

  1. Examine the concept clinical narratives and its value in linking clinical transactions to culture and political economy.
  2. Reflect on conducting ethnography of high tech medicine -- in high tech and low tech settings.
  3. Discuss political/ideological contexts for production and reception of narratives and for narrative effects.

APRIL 29: Time, Space and Subject in Medical Anthropology

  1. Discuss the representation of time, space and subjectivity in ethnographic writing in medical anthropology.
  2. Discuss the need for and implications of distributed fieldsites for contemporary medical anthropology.
  3. Discuss the political economy of international biomedicine with regard to medical anthropology and critical cultural studies.

MAY 6: Ethnography of Contemporary Biotech Research: The Case of Genetics and the Geneticization of Life

  1. Review the history eugenics and its intimate links to the emergence of molecular biology.
  2. Examine anthropological studies of genetic testing, genetic screening, and genetic counselling. Note importance of such research as interface of feminist theorizing, science studies and medical anthropology.

Back to my syllabi.

Created on: 24 March 1999.
Last updated: 24 March 1999.