Healing Traditions: Alternative Medicine and the Health Professions

By Bonnie Blair O’Connor | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Critical Approaches to Literature
and Theories

To arrive at any sort of comprehensive understanding of vernacular health belief systems it is necessary to be able to connect them with a theoretical understanding of belief in general, as well as with an understanding of culture and the cultural frameworks with which all belief systems are interconnected. Belief and behavior are strongly culturally shaped, and definitions of health and illness are cultural products. The most productive approach to vernacular healing systems is necessarily an interdisciplinary effort, for belief and behavior are complex phenomena, and all explanations of complex phenomena are partial accounts. An interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approach provides multiple reference points and enables differing conceptions to be balanced against and to illuminate each other, providing a more comprehensive view both of the subject and of the various approaches to it.

Several disciplines have either addressed folk and popular health belief systems directly or have engaged in related studies that contribute much to our current capacity to grasp the subject in productive and comprehensive ways. Over time, the regnant social and academic theories and their related concerns and convictions have selectively focused disciplinary attention on particular subjects and objects of interest. These theories and concerns have shaped the scholarship in specific ways. Always at issue, more or less overtly, has been a set of academic beliefs about human nature; about the characteristics of societies or their subgroups; about the nature and production of knowledge and belief; about morals, values, and ethics; and about the relationship of the studier to the studied. In the past twenty years or so this subtext has become a subject of study in itself. This reflexive reorientation has produced a critical inquiry into past approaches, taking into account the cultural shaping of academic and professional knowledge, and articulating the relationships of authority between professional and popular or indigenous ways of knowing.

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