Anthropology of Healing


Anthropology of Healing

How do people heal from traumatic events? What roles do narrative, ritual, mythology, etc play in this process?

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Latest Activity: Oct 26, 2016

Discussion Forum

References on the social role of health care 9 Replies

Started by Sabina Stan. Last reply by Sabina Stan Sep 28, 2011.

mind, body, spirit and community issues.

Started by Michael Sep 8, 2010.

Narrative & Healing 4 Replies

Started by Marlaine Gray. Last reply by Josué Villegas Feb 21, 2010.

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Comment by John McCreery on March 20, 2013 at 11:45am

Great question, Logan. The situation you describe sounds similar to that in China. I will happily elaborate, but first I would like to hear what others have to say.

Comment by Logan Sparks on March 19, 2013 at 10:35am

Reading the comments of John McCreery and others I am lead to a certain question for this group, if anyone is interesting in chiming in: Where does the issue of romanticising interesting subjects come in. I see John as indirectly, maybe, bringing this up in a way. We have these extremes don't we? We have gone from a period in which social scientists carried strong colonial prejudices and were interested in the 'nonsense primitive people do' to clarify their own theories, to a world in which we are more aware (and hopefully) crtical about our own positioning. We now have concepts like 'traditional/indigenous knowledge' etc...And it seems sometimes the pendulum swings to far the other way into a romanticisng tendency. Doing my work in Turkey where there is still a struggle with traditional world-views, I am often reminded that modernism here is still raw and critical at times in a way, and that people sometimes react quite strongly to certain practices they see as 'backwards' while still continuing with certain traditional practices like herbal medicine which seem to more or less pass the threshold of modernist ideals. So, returning to my original point, have you seen a danger in romanticisng things like traditional healing? perhaps as a pendulum swinging too far from the biological and psychological reductionism, mixed with colonial and neo-colonial thinking from the past?

Comment by Adrian Andreescu on February 4, 2012 at 10:57am

You might find of some interest the recent article - "Rethinking Prayer and
Health Research: An Exploratory Inquiry on Prayer’s Psychological

International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, Vol. 30, Nos. 1-2, pp. 23-47,

Comment by John McCreery on August 7, 2011 at 12:51am

The question what roles do narrative, ritual, mythology, etc. play in healing is an extraordinarily difficult one to answer. Classic accounts of ritual healing tend to assume that healing occurs, then fall back on the assumption that meaning is inherently comforting—thus any narrative, ritual or myth that appears to account for illness and offer hope does good. On a deeper level there is a functionalist just-so story grounded in evolutionary theory.

Ritual, etc., is, by definition, expensive—at a minimum a distraction from more directly productive activities—and the more elaborate it is the more expensive it becomes. Thus, so the argument goes, it wouldn't exist unless it were good for something, and if actual healing is ruled out, comfort and group solidarity may be where the value lies.


The problem with all such accounts is the failure to deal with what medical researchers call "false positives." Back in the 1960s, Torrey Fuller reported on studies of psychotherapy that seemed to indicate that no particular school of therapy was better than any other and none was better than doing nothing at all. Why? Most acute psychological crises resolve themselves within a fairly short time frame. The same is true of most common ailments. If they don't kill you, you get better in fairly short order. To which we can now add that chronic diseases of aging are rare in premodern populations with short life spans. 

The conclusion to which this points is that meaning provided by ritual, etc., may have a short term palliative effect, but actual healing is rare. Ritual is the aspirin of premodern medicine; not its surgery or cure for cancer.


Why, then, do people turn to it? They are, in fact, in pain, and lacking better alternatives they will try anything. Why does it sometimes seem to work? Because in most cases, patients do get better in fairly short order, and post hoc ergo propter hoc seems to be a form of illogic to which human beings are commonly prone.

Now, this, too, could be a just-so story. The point is that without systematic study of enough cases to sift the wheat of actual healing from the chaff of rumor and speculation, one-off ethnographic studies of "ritual" healing prove nothing at all.


Grump, grump. The curmudgeon is in the oven, waiting to be flamed.

Comment by Paola Esposito on January 22, 2011 at 4:28pm
Hi Haris, there is a chapter in Catherine Bell's Ritual: perspectives and dimensions (1997), where she discusses the characteristics of 'ritual-like activities'. I am not sure about an actual distinction between the three categories or 'ritual' 'rite' and 'ceremony', but you might start by looking at them (as Bell suggests) in terms of different degree of formalism, traditionalism, performance, and other characteristics Bell associates to ritual-like activities. Sorry for belated answer, I just joined this group. Best, Paola
Comment by Haris Agic on September 9, 2010 at 8:09am
Hi again to y'all! I have a question: what is the difference between "ritual", "rite" and "ceremony". is there a thorrough anthropological discussion about this topic to be found somewhere? In that case would anyone be so kind and give me some pointers. I am conducting research on clinical practices of treating advanced heart failure and the theoretical framework I find quite useful is Turners concept of liminality. So I take the whole process of 1) diagnosis and hospitalisation - initiation; 2) daily life at the hospital - liminality; and 3) discharge, rehab and training - reintegration, as one long and complex ritual that in turn consists of many smaller daily rituals. For the sake of clarity I wouldn't want to confuse the terms ritual, rite and ceremony with each other. I am greatful for you input.
Sencerily / Haris
Comment by Sonia Gracia Chávez on September 8, 2010 at 5:07pm
Hi everyone!
Comment by Rinzi Lama on August 11, 2010 at 7:31am
Hello All, I am newly joined with my basic interest in ethnomedicine with special focus on the medicine man, looking forward to discussions on these lines..
Comment by Haris Agic on July 6, 2010 at 12:46pm
Hi everyone!
Comment by GABRIELLA ASPRAKI on May 27, 2010 at 10:03am
Hi! New to the group. Looking forward to catching up.

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