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Johan Wedel

The discussion on medical health has a lot to gain from an increased openness towards alternative ways of thinking.
So says the researcher Johan Wedel, who is specialised in medical anthropology.

– As a social anthropologist I study from a general perspective how people relate to and interpret their surrounding world in order to develop knowledge of the complexity of societal life and increase the understanding of non-Western cultural conceptions. One might also say that the subject in itself has a holistic point of departure insofar as it relates human conceptions and expressions to economic, political and social contexts.
– Medical anthropology in particular revolves around a critical review of Western medicine – biomedicine – while it concurrently seeks to describe the connection between biological processes that concern health and illness and social and individual conceptions.

What makes medical anthropology such an urgent research area?

– In many ways it challenges conventional medical ways of thinking and has also received a breakthrough in practical health care and public health contexts. Anthropologists are today being engaged for education of health care staff and public health workers in what one calls culture-competent health care and culture-sensitive reception.
– The complicated interplay between cultural conceptions and health has become apparent also in medical circles through studies on placebo – the deliberate treatment through ineffectual medication – which shows how thinking affects the body and vice versa. Such results do not only upset an accepted scientific distinction between body and soul within the natural sciences, but also place alternative forms of treatment and healing in a different light.

What is the orientation of your work?
– I conducted research for instance on religious curing of disease and so-called cross-cultural psychiatry, which both are central subareas within medical anthropology. My dissertation Santería Healing is concerned with precisely non-Western religious healing. It takes a vantage point in anthropological knowledge formation around how magic, witchcraft and various healing rituals can strengthen social ties and also influence the human being emotionally and bodily. Cross-cultural psychiatry, in turn, focuses on cultural conceptions concerning mental illness. Through a broad comparative perspective, anthropologists investigate how Western psychiatry is influenced by social, cultural and political forces, but also how one within other conceptual worlds take note of and handle states of mental illness that fall outside Western, psychiatric categories.

Has medical anthropology made a breakthrough in any other contexts?
– The subject not only studies alternative explanations for illness, but also how global differences in health are dependent on structural inequalities, such as economic and political power relations. Anthropologists have for instance contributed to broadening the scientific debate on the AIDS contagion. Through moving the focus from individual behaviour and risk groups to the significance of poverty and social marginalisation, one has created a basis for new policy discussions on AIDS and other global public health issues.

Personal facts

Profession: university lecturer
Age: 52 years old
Family: a daughter
Research interests: cultural perspectives on health, disease, healing and cures
Driving force: to understand the world from the perspectives of diversity and holism
Leisure interests: salsa dancing, lying in my hammock

[The interview was conducted by Daniel Brodén and was published 2014-06-27]

Contact Information

Centre for Culture and Health

Box 200, 405 30 Gothenburg, Sweden

Page Manager: Lovisa Aijmer|Last update: 7/14/2014
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