What does “Medical Anthropology is a Big Tent, Too” mean?

Peter Brown (March 2022)

The title and structure of this event were ripped off from Carol Worthman’s symposium in September 2019. So this conference is “Big Tent II”, too.  In thinking about my impending retirement in August 2022, I realized that the highlight of my career has been working with such exceptionally talented graduate students.  I wanted to celebrate their achievements and organize a sort of homecoming.  I have had the pleasure of working with 51 PhD students since I started here in 1978.

“Big tent” means that there is room for all subfields and subspecialties in the inclusive field of Anthropology.  It means that the traditional Four-field approach is not dead and that the “sacred bundle” of interdisciplinary scholarship should be preserved.  All four fields have relevance to understanding contemporary human problems; that was the central motivation for the textbook/reader Applying Anthropology: Introductory Readings edited by Aaron Podolefsky and Peter Brown.

In my view, Medical Anthropology simply refers to the use of anthropological theory and methods for better understanding and/or ameliorating problems pertaining to human health, wellness, maladies, or healing. This is different from the kitchen sink definition of the field offered by the Society for Medical Anthropology.

The definition of health, in the WHO’s 2020 revision, refers to an idealized state of physical, mental, and social being, and not merely the absence or management of disease or disability. The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is a fundamental right of every human being.   This probably seems utopian, but the aspiration should be both “health is a human right” as well as “health care for all”.

Medical Anthropology is not a narrow subdiscipline and it must include both basic and applied research.  It lies at the intersection of cultural, biological, psychological, and applied approaches.  The textbook/reader Understanding and Applying Medical Anthropology  (UAMA) edited by Peter Brown and former students includes a variety of perspectives — biological, historical, ethnomedical, critical medical anthropology, cross-cultural medical care, and the ethnography of illness experience.  The introductory chapter of that volume, explains this variety of approaches with examples — it is such a big tent that it is very challenging to cover it in a one semester course.