Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

The Re-Emergence of Grassroots Herbalism: An Analysis through the Blogosphere

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

The Re-Emergence of Grassroots Herbalism: An Analysis through the Blogosphere

Article excerpt


Using medicinal plants as treatment for illness or assisting in health maintenance is commonplace throughout the world. As a central component of Traditional and Complementary Medicine (T&CM), these plants are globally, as the World Health Organisation states, "either the mainstay of healthcare delivery or a complement to it" (WHO, 2013). Their application crosses all medical traditions and settings from home remedies or via informal networks of community and folk healing, to shamanic healing. Furthermore, medicinal plants are used by practitioners of indigenous and formalised medical traditions and within pharmaceutical medicine. Their recent popularity in Western countries is as part of Complementary and Alternative medicine (CAM), a sector which has grown dramatically in the last 30 years (Coulter & Willis, 2007; Eardley et al., 2012; MacLennan, Myers, & Taylor, 2006; Xue, Zhang, Lin, Da Costa, & Story, 2007) largely through the increase in self-prescription of over-the-counter herbal and nutritional products.

The focus of this paper is on a group of practitioners who utilise these plants. Specifically, we address issues facing practitioners of Western Herbal Medicine (WHM), which is defined here as the approach to herbal medicine common in North America, the UK and Australia (Wahlberg, 2010). WHM is based on, but not confined to plants of European origin. While other herbal traditions including Ayurveda (originating in India) and Traditional Chinese Medicine, are now globalised and enjoy popularity within Western countries, issues faced by those practitioners are not addressed here.

Practitioners of WHM have emerged from a difficult professional past. They lost their quest for acceptance as legitimate primary healthcare providers during the first half of the twentieth century with the rise of biomedicine and the occupational control established by its practitioners during the first half of the twentieth century (Brown, 1979; Saks, 2002; Willis, 1989). Consequently from that time herbal medicine was largely practiced in the shadows - informally or as unregulated practice, "on the margins of the medical marketplace" (Cant & Calnan, 1991), its practitioners commonly denigrated as charlatans and quacks.

The recent resurgence of popularity means practitioners of WHM are no longer on the margins, and face different challenges. Over the last two decades they have confronted issues of professionalisation, including the modernisation of their knowledge base and the education of practitioners (Evans, 2008; Saks, 1996; Wardle, Steel, & Adams, 2012). They have needed to address questions regarding their place in society, such as what are the rights and responsibilities of its practitioners? Where do herbalists stand in relation to other healthcare practitioners? Contemporary herbalists also face issues of a professional nature: what is the role of traditional knowledge, of vitalistic philosophy, of biomedical science? Which practices and ideas are useful and central to the profession in the twenty-first century and which should be discarded? In addition the many implications of globalisation, industrialisation and regulation (Jagtenberg & Evans, 2003; Wahlberg, 2008, 2010) has greatly influenced the manufacture and use of their tools of trade - herbal products.

VanMarie (2002) was one of the first to research the ways in which UK herbalists were aiming to gain sociopolitical acceptance by "reinventing" their knowledge base to be more closely aligned with science - and at that time, this modernised herbal medicine adopted a new name "phytotherapy". While the process of bringing the insights and discipline of science to the tradition of herbal medicine continues, the term "phytotherapy" is not now widely used in the Anglophone world. However the term "phytomedicines" is used to describe herbal products whose activity is described within a framework of contemporary science and which are produced using sophisticated pharmaceutical processes. …

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