Perceptions of Illness Examined

Cape Times (South Africa), March 8, 2013 | Go to article overview

Perceptions of Illness Examined


BYLINE: REVIEW: Dawn Garisch

Edited by Susan Levine

HSRC Press

This collection of observations and reflections is written by professionals working in anthropology, medical and pharmacological research, and art. The book brings our attention to the ways illness is perceived by patients and those they turn to for help, and how available methods for healing are implemented and received. It is a valuable contribution for a number of reasons.

Many of us have been brought up thinking that a fact is a fact, and the solution is a few logical steps away; the job of the anthropologist is to awaken us to what they term "knowledge production", alerting us that what we know is often manufactured out of available material, and is influenced by other factors and interested parties in the political, economic and social arenas.

Knowledge is contingent on a number of variables, and might well change completely if other information emerges. Susan Levine, who edited the book, describes anthropologists as having a calling towards "ambiguous readings of everyday life".

The book straddles a range of conflicting and paradoxical solutions that the sick, across many cultures, seek out.

Subject matter includes patients with HIV/Aids and tuberculosis; the sometimes questionable methods employed by pharmaceutical companies and anthropologists to acquire or concoct knowledge; and how local knowledge about healing is translated across other settings.

Modern medicine has developed the valuable tool of objective measurement to test how effective our interventions are. Yet doctors know that there is an interpersonal assessment that cannot be ticked off in a textbook box.

Few clinicians would dare or even want to diagnose and treat a patient without personal contact which includes the laying-on of hands. The ill body is not a stereotypical object, uniform across cultures, time and geographies. The body is attached to vastly different personalities and contexts; these must be taken into account when diagnosing and treating.

On the other hand, practitioners of therapies that fall outside the domain of scientific method, and that rely more on intuition, story, symbol and other unmeasurables, are increasingly wanting recognition and certification in mainstream institutions - the topic of one of the chapters.

I am very much in favour of texts that try to understand all aspects of our humanity, in particular common individual or group behaviours that look incomprehensible. The effort of understanding our own and other people's beliefs and actions can go some way towards lessening the suffering we all cause through intolerance, assumptions and arrogance. …

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