Meaning, Medicine, and the "Placebo Effect"

Meaning, Medicine, and the "Placebo Effect"

Meaning, Medicine, and the "Placebo Effect"

Meaning, Medicine, and the "Placebo Effect"

Synopsis

Traditionally, the effectiveness of medical treatments is attributed to specific elements, such as drugs or surgical procedures. However, many other factors can significantly effect the outcome. Drugs with nationally advertised names can work better than the same drug without the name. Inert drugs (placebos, dummies) often have dramatic effects on some patients and effects can vary greatly among different European countries where the "same" medical condition is understood differently. Daniel Moerman traverses a complex subject area in this detailed examination of medical variables. Since 1993, Cambridge Studies in Medical Anthropology has offered researchers and instructors monographs and edited collections of leading scholarship in one of the most lively and popular subfields of cultural and social anthropology. Beginning in 2002, the CSMA series presents theme booksworks that synthesize emerging scholarship from relatively new subfields or that reinterpret the literature of older ones. Designed as course material for advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and for professionals in related areas (physicians, nurses, public health workers, and medical sociologists), these theme books will demonstrate how work in medical anthropology is carried out and convey the importance of a given topic for a wide variety of readers. About 160 pages in length, the theme books are not simply staid reviews of the literature. They are, instead, new ways of conceptualizing topics in medical anthropology that take advantage of current research and the growing edges of the field.

Excerpt

My first introduction to something that might be called “medical anthropology” occurred in 1969, although at the time, I had never heard that phrase. I was doing fieldwork on St. Helena Island in South Carolina as part of my Ph. D. work. St. Helena is a barrier island, just across the Broad River to the north from much better known Hilton Head Island. Interested in family organization in a black community (debates raged in the 1960s about “the black family”), I thought that a thorough investigation of such families in a real community would be worthwhile. As I pursued my genealogies and spoke with these kind people, I heard an occasional reference to the use of certain plants – they called them “weeds” – to treat various illnesses. Intrigued, I pursued the matter, and found a number of people eager to talk about it. Eventually, I was able to identify three dozen or so “weeds” that were part of everyday use; most were better known to older than younger Islanders, but most everyone knew something about it. The whole matter seemed very odd to me; today, surrounded by “health food” and “natural medicine” shops, with everyone taking Echinacea to stimulate his or her immune system, and Gingko to ward off Alzheimer'S disease, it doesn't seem so unusual to hear about medicinal plants, but in the 1960s, it was odd indeed. I wondered if anyone else had ever used those plants for anything, and did they work? I can't tell that story here, even though the answers to these questions deeply inform my understandings of what I will write about. I have written a good deal about those issues, however, and some of it is readily available (see, for example, Moerman 1982, 1989, 1998b).

Some of this botanical medicine seemed quite empirical. The bark of a tree known as prickly ash (Zanthoxylum americanum or perhaps Z. clavaherculis) was reputedly a powerful treatment for diarrhea in pigs. Actually, what I was told was more colorful than this. One older gentleman said that the “pickle ash” would “check up run stomach in pigs, ” but that you had to be careful not to give them too much or you might “cork 'em for keeps!” These two species of plants,Z. clava-herculis (Hercules' club) and Z. americanum (prickly ash), were part of professional American medicine 1 . . .

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