Is Health Subjective?

For Anthropology 2017 we tackled some big questions anthropology has attempted to answer. As part of a chapter in Anthropology: What Does it Mean to be Human?, “How is Anthropology Applied in Medicine?” a big question: “Is Health Subjective?” We also watched Paul Farmer’s “I believe in health care as a human right.”

For an attempt to explore these issues in Intro-to-Anthropology 2021, see Medical Anthropology.


Perceptions of health and illness

Lavenda and Schultz begin with a strong statement about the need to understand the perception of health and illness: “In the United States, many people understand health as a state of physical, emotional, and mental well-being, together with an absence of disease or disability that would interfere with such well-being. Anthropologists recognize, however, that what counts as wellness or its opposite is very much shaped by people’s cultural, social, and political experiences and expectations” (2015:448).

In Is the Developed World We’ve Created Giving Us Cancer? (June 2017) Chelsey Kivland asks an important question: “Why do people, across cultures and societies, tend to focus on the individual person as the unit of analysis?” Kivland answers:

For one, it is fundamentally easier than focusing on a system: social, political, or ecological. Laying blame on a person or a gene also plays neatly into the cultural metaphors we’ve sustained about all sorts of illness: that disease is a consequence of personal rather than societal failings. This certainly locates blame in the afflicted, protecting the well from facing their individual fears of illness. But it severely limits our ability to understand and eradicate collective epidemics, like cancer.

Anthropology Blog Resources on Health & Medical Anthropology

There are lots of resources available for questions of Medical Anthropology. The resources below are from the feeds of Anthropology Blogs. Please let me know about useful updates!


Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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