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Medical Anthropology

Medical anthropology is the study of how health and illness are shaped, experienced, and understood in the context of cultural, historical, and political forces. It is one of the most exciting subfields of anthropology and has increasingly clear relevance for students and professionals interested in the complexity of disease states, diagnostic categories, and what comes to count as pathology or health.

At Stanford some of our principal areas of inquiry include cultures of medicine, the social nature of emergent biotechnology, the economics of bodily injury, psychic expressions of disorder, the formation of social networks on health, the lived experience of disability and inequality, caregiving, and ever-changing concepts of human biological difference and race. We work in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in addition to the United States and its borderlands. We engage with patients, health scientists, and larger publics at home and abroad in order to contribute to a more robust understanding of the way  poverty, social status, war, racism, and nationalism produce illness and disease. We look both at the broad forces of structural violence and the microphenomenology of pain and suffering. Our program seeks students who creatively imagine interdisciplinary approaches to health questions, wish to increase dialogue with medical professionals, and aim to rethink operative principles within science and medicine.

Our core group of faculty includes:

Angela Garcia: Professor Garcia’s work explores political, economic and psychic processes through which illness and suffering is produced and lived. Through long-term ethnographic research with poor families and communities struggling with multigenerational experiences of addiction, depression, and incarceration, she draws attention to emerging forms of care and kinship, accounts of cultural history and subjectivities, and relations of affect and intimacy, that are essential to understanding health and life. Working in the United States and Mexico, her work also demonstrates the urgent need for drug law reform and new approaches to ethics and therapeutics as they concern suffering in shared and transgressive formations.

Duana Fullwiley: Professor Fullwiley explores how global and historical notions of health, disease, race, and power yield biological consequences that bear on scientific definitions of human difference. Through an ethnographic engagement with geneticists and the populations they study, she underscores the importance of expanding the conceptual terrain of genetic causation to include poverty and on-going racial stratification. She explicitly writes in the long histories of inequality and dispossession suffered by global minorities that often go missing from medical narratives of genetic disease and ideas of “population-based” severity. Working in France, West Africa and the United States, she details the legacy effects of postcolonial, post-Reconstruction, and Progressive Era science policies on present-day health outcomes. She also chronicles the remnants of racial thinking in new population genetic research and works with scientists to redress them.

Lochlann Jain: Professor Jain's research is primarily concerned with the ways in which stories get told about injuries, how they are thought to be caused, and how that matters. Figuring out the political and social significance of these stories has led to the study of law, product design, medical error, and histories of engineering, regulation, corporations, and advertising.

Matthew Kohrman: Professor Kohrman’s research and writing bring anthropological methods to bear on the ways health, culture, and politics are interrelated. Focusing on the People's Republic of China, he engages various intellectual terrains such as governmentality, gender theory, political economy, critical science studies, narrativity, and embodiment. His first monograph, Bodies of Difference: Experiences of Disability and Institutional Advocacy in the Making of Modern China, raises questions about how embodied aspects of human existence, such as our gender, such as our ability to propel ourselves through space as walkers, cyclists and workers, become founts for the building of new state apparatuses of social provision, in particular, disability-advocacy organizations. Over the last decade, Prof. Kohrman has been involved in research aimed at analyzing and intervening in the biopolitics of cigarette smoking among Chinese citizens. This work, as seen in his recently edited volume--Poisonous Pandas: Chinese Cigarette Manufacturing in Critical Historical Perspectives--expands upon heuristic themes of his earlier disability research and engages in novel ways techniques of public health, political philosophy, and spatial history. More recently, he has begun projects linking ongoing interests at the intersection of phenomenology and political economy with questions regarding environmental attunement and the arts.

Tanya Luhrmann: Professor Luhrmann has long standing interests in schizophrenia, with work on homeless, poverty, and social defeat. Her work focuses on the edge of experience: on voices, visions, the world of the supernatural and the world of psychosis. She has done ethnography on the streets of Chicago with homeless and psychotic women, and worked with people with psychosis who hear voices in Chennai, Accra and the South Bay. She has also done fieldwork with evangelical Christians who seek to hear God speak back, with Zoroastrians who set out to create a more mystical faith, and with people who practice magic. She uses a combination of ethnographic and experimental methods to understand the phenomenology of unusual sensory experiences, the way they are shaped by ideas about minds and persons, the relationship between the voices of madness and the voices of spirit, and what we can learn from this social shaping that can help us to help those whose voices are distressing.

What sets this program apart?

An engaged orientation

Our group at Stanford believes that anthropological analysis is not just for anthropologists and not just for the classroom. It matters elsewhere. Whether it is cancer, psychiatric disease, drug addiction, injury and disability, racialized health disparities, genetic disorders or the leading cause of premature death, tobacco, we tackle issues of great importance for people the world over. In addressing the societal and bodily aspects of these problems, we encourage our students to work with affected communities, medical professionals, basic scientists, patient advocates, and health NGOs while aiming to reach even larger publics.

The goal of our work is to advance the field of anthropology, which is the disciplinary home of medical anthropology, but to do so in ways that also advance thinking within broader intellectual communities. The field of medical anthropology addresses afflictions of increasing importance that are seldom sufficiently understood by biomedicine alone. Much of our work focuses on how health problems arise from larger social issues, which must also be addressed. As we strive to dissolve the stark divides between the life and the social sciences, we work in the spirit that cross-disciplinary conversations are possible and necessary to achieve effective medicine, humane healing, and ethical science. In this vein, we encourage our students to publish in the flagship journals of anthropology but also in relevant health science and more popular mainstream venues.

Theory and Methods

We are steadfast in our commitment to ethnography, affirming its empirical merits and value for theory building. We also realize that some research questions benefit from other methods, including statistical reporting, demographic observations, and survey techniques. In its specifics, training in our program includes courses in anthropological theory, the anthropology of science and technology, psychiatric anthropology, and various area foci where specific health problems are more prevalent for geo-political reasons. We expose students to these diverse approaches to allow them to contribute innovatively to anthropology as well as to a broader set of audiences. To facilitate this work, we also collaborate with Stanford’s Center for Comparative Studies on Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE), the Center for International Studies (FSI), the Departments of Medicine and Psychiatry, the Department of Psychology, and the program on Science and Technology Studies (STS).



Associate Professor of Anthropology
Professor of Anthropology
Professor of Anthropology
Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology and, by courtesy, Department of Medicine; Senior Fellow, by courtesy, at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies
Albert Ray Lang Professor