ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Science and the cultural politics of reproductive technologies

Mutual influences of medical practice and religious epistemologies

Contact Convenor: David Parkin

All Soul's College

Co-Convenor: Elizabeth Hsu

Panel abstract

Religion and medicine are so intertwined that disentangling them seems inappropriate. This observation applies not only to the conventionally regarded mainstream systems of religion and medicine but also to new age complementary and alternative medicine which are often regarded religiously by their users. The contributors to this panel are however asked to think of “religion” more narrowly and focus on Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Daoist-Confucionist ideas and practices, and how they have shaped, and in turn been shaped by, local understandings of selfhood, well-being and illness, and also local forms of treatment and its evaluation. Do some religious configurations encourage one tendency more than the other, or is such religious determinism a false notion? By contrast, are there examples of a particular medical practice providing a model for religious teachings and activities, or of medical epistemologies contributing significantly to the spread of a religion? It is reported that biomedical missionaries’s cataract operations enabled people to see not only their immediate physical environment but also the light of God; the introduction of the idea of Muslim jinns among the Zaramo of Tanzania had the effect of introducing, by way of opposing forces, evil spirits and thence spirit possession; at the same time as Daoist meditation practices and gymnastics were revived in China, Buddhist-Daoist temples were restored and enlivened. Are the two sets of occurrences connected, and is an answer to be found in the way in which selfhood and the mind-body complex are understood in such mutually transformative religious and medical contexts?

Measuring God’s medicine: the muslim Swahili              

David Parkin, University of Oxford

The intertwining of the religious and the medical is very clear in the great 14th century work by Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya, entitled al-Tibb al-Nabawi (The medicine of the Prophet). Drawing on Arab sources and Greek-derived philosophical-medical theories in which all illnesses are ascribed to disturbance of the humours, this systematic body of medical knowledge is re-presented by the author as clearly emanating from the hadith (traditions) and sunna of the Prophet, whose own knowledge was itself, like the Qur’an, revealed to Him by God. While thus dependent on the correct application of God’s wisdom and omniscience as expressed through the words imparted to the Prophet, the book nevertheless indicates that systematic medical diagnosis, prognosis and treatment are empirically grounded in the sense of requiring correct dosages and procedures. It is God’s knowledge which humans apply and they must follow His guidance as expressed in what are in effect intertwined religious and practical texts. The Qur’an is the greatest medicine, much of the Prophet’s commentary is medical, and advice about health and cure are clearly presented as conforming to God’s will and subject to His grace.

In Zanzibar, and among many other Swahili-speaking Muslims in coastal East Africa, this mutual involvement of the religious and the medical is very evident in practice, and is reflected in the fact that healers have, at different times in their lives, sometimes been religious leaders. While sharing presuppositions, however, the categories of the religious and the medical can be spoken of in terms of separate vocabulary, a feature that has epistemological implications.

Lower class muslim healing practices and the changing production and consumption of ayurvedic medicine in Rajasthan

Maya Unnithan-Kumar, University of Sussex

In the paper I explore how Hindu religious ideas as embodied in Ayurvedic medicine shape lower class, Hindu caste and Muslim practices of reproductive healing (to do with infertility and menstrual disorders) in Rajasthan, at the same time as local notions of gender, the body, self and fertility, serve  to infuse the healing practices with regionally specific meanings. The paper also considers the implications for Ayurveda and local healing practices of the recent, biomedically-orientated marketing strategies used by pharmaceutical companies involved in producing Ayurvedic cures.

'Following the bird': mission discourse and biomedical diagnostic discernment in Nepal

Ian Harper, School of Oriental and African Studies

The presence and development of a mission hospital in Palpa district, Nepal, has had a key role in mediating the local confrontation with therapeutic uncertainty. In this paper I combine early mission discourses around Nepal and the health of its people with ethnographic interviews with local residents and hospital attendees at this, Nepal’s busiest hospital, to develop the following links. The introduction to Nepal of a specifically biomedical form of diagnostic discernment into a confusing epistemological terrain was related to a highly particular logic of scientific taxonomy. This ordering is similar to “diagnostic” bird watching which crucially and, I suggest, not coincidentally holds a key position in the history of the United Mission to Nepal. The diagnostic process - or descriptive form of scientific perception – is also linked to both the constitution of a medical need and as absolute difference in relation to prior, or “other”, already existing local epistemologies broadly dealing with health. This popular mission hospital (and associated biomedical efficacy) has also, consequently, become linked by many to an ideological perception of “foreignness”. Yet the ways in which the mission past is remembered relates to this management of therapeutic uncertainty, the behaviour of the mission doctors and stories of recovery from illness episodes.

The doctor and the priest: impersonation, healing, and ritual in an Italian mental health community

Sara Bergstresser, Brown University

This paper will examine the way participants in an Italian community mental health program manage the often-conflicting ideologies of Catholicism and Medicine within their daily lives.  The first example draws upon the story of an individual who found a way to participate in the mental health community without taking on the stigmatized role of patient.  Specifically, this man presented himself at different times as either a psychiatrist or a priest; the choice of these particular figures shows their importance both in the center and within the broader culture.  The second example draws upon the story of a center resident who, at some times, proclaimed his allegiance to the doctor over the priest, and at other times reconsidered the primacy of the priest as healing figure.  These declarations of allegiance shifted along with the varied day-to-day effectiveness of the pharmaceutical "cure" of the doctor, with each figure taking on foremost importance at different times.  Using these examples, I will show how individuals manage the demands of competing domains of possible allegiance when social hierarchy, stigma, and potential healing are at stake.  Finally, I will show evidence of syncretism through the combination of medical and religious rituals into a new hybrid.

Church and healing among Angami in Nagaland, northeastern India

Vibha Joshi, University of Oxford

Churches in Nagaland, northeastern India, are associated with different forms of healing practices, since Christianity carried an emphasis on healing when it was introduced to the Naga people. I examine the kinds of healing available. For instance, the healing camps/crusades, which involve prayer and laying on of hands, characterise the Revival church and have become popular in Nagaland in recent years. Other churches, such as Baptist and Catholic, include breakaway sects which may use these methods, but also provide healing services which range from allopathic medicines to faith healing. However, conversion to any form of Christianity has not replaced pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices, as I show through a case study of a young woman who is thought to suffer from demoniac possession. In fact, pluralistic aspects of belief converge in the diagnosis and treatment of illness.

Battle of the word: creating Tibetan science between Dharamsala and Lhasa

Audrey Prost, UCL

The paper focuses on the contemporary practice of traditional Tibetan medicine and biomedical care in the exile communities of Himachal Pradesh, India. Drawing on fieldwork conducted in the area, as well as on related Tibetan literature, I wish to undertake a broader analysis of the interpretation of scientific work and concepts in the Buddhist Tibetan exile community. Placing specific emphasis on the problem of translation of scientific concepts in medical practice, I wish to look at ways in which exile Tibetans have translated and incorporated western scientific concepts in their practice of medicine, and how they are generally used in everyday life. I also look at competing scientific translations between the Chinese Tibetan Autonomous Region and the exile communities of India, showing how the evolution of medical practice in both contexts is informed by the political situation. I argue that Tibetan translations and re-interpretations of western scientific concepts, under the guise of following set conventions, actually depart in culturally significant ways from their intended signifiers, notably in recasting them within a Buddhist framework. In doing so, they provide us with valuable information, revealing cultural interpretations linked to key religious and political influences in the community. 

Medicine of moderation – docile bodies? Confucian morality and state formation in Han dynasty China

Elisabeth Hsu, University of Oxford

The formation of the “medicine of systematic correspondences” that laid the foundation of what is today known as “Chinese medicine” dates to the Han dynasty, a period when the Chinese empire became consolidated and Confucian teachings became the basis of state religion. Paul Unschuld (1980) and Nathan Sivin (1995), among others, have emphasized aspects of the body politic characteristic of this medicine of the elite. In their analysis Confucian state religion is a function of state’s politics that shaped medical doctrine. This is not contested in this paper. And yet the question remains whether all techniques of moderating emotion and of disciplining the body, which in religious contexts are forms of self-cultivation, transcendence, and salvation, lastly represent forms in which political authority is exerted, internalised and legitimised. To what extent can one see in these body techniques practices of resistance?