Medical Anthropology Blog: The Politics of Medicine: Post-colonialism and Science as Morality


Jean Langford originally sets out to do a comparative analysis between modern biomedicine and traditional Ayurvedic practices and their incorporation in post-modern India. In Fluent Bodies, Langford discovers the complexities and ultimate refusal of Ayurvedic concepts to be enframed within a Western epistemological framework. Langford
states, "my modern assumptions were reflected back to me through
answers to my questions that resisted their epistemological thrust"
(19). The unfolding of Langford's
ethnography depicted a practice that appeared to trivialize such
westernized conventions such as mapping medical concepts onto the human
body, transcend the public/private dichotomy of biomedicine, and elude the modern perception of traditional "ethnomedicine" as relatively static against a dynamic scientific backdrop. Langford depicts patterns of Ayuvedic integration within the biomedical model as well as post-colonial resistance to the perceived hegemony of allopathy. Ayurveda appears to elude modernist tendencies towards compartmentalization and reification. Langford
distinguishes her methodology as resisting the temptations to "police"
the boundaries and demarcations of authentic Ayurveda. Rather she sets
out to take a deeper gaze at the forces that create authenticity within
Ayurveda. It appears that the reverberations of colonialism create a
dynamic that attempts to incorporate biomedicine
in order to achieve institutional clout in a post-colonial setting,
while simultaneously attempting to ward off hegemonic devices of
classification and control. Langford
discovers ranges of this incorporation and resistance within the
practices of Ayurveda that manifest themselves in the sentiments of
their practitioners, whether it be a vaidya who received his credentials at a mimetic institution of Ayurvedic medicine or a rural Kaviraj who sells mixtures of boiled sugar and passes them off as "authentic" Ayurvedic pharmacopoeia (207).

It appears as though there is a state of ambivalence for the post-colonial consumer of healthcare.
The consumer may perceive some value in biomedical approaches but may
view procedures as invasive, dangerous, and even short-lived as many
biomedical approaches are perceived as only riding the body of the
undesired symptoms of affliction and not the source of the affliction.
The healthcare
market, consequently, has been forced to adapt to the needs of the
ambivalent and multi-dimensional consumer in order to ensure its own
economic survival. It appears as though many practitioners of Ayurveda
are reluctantly subjected to packaging and essentializing
Ayurveda, to the expectations of their customers, while simultaneously
resisting the political categorization of Ayurveda by imperialist
ideologies. Scientific rationalism, under the guise of objectivity, may
be used as an agent of coercion to facilitate adherence to the
dominating political doctrine of the occupation, or the ideological
remnants and the institutional frameworks left behind by the occupation
after independence. Collective experiences, observations, and practices
are perceived as shaping the social and political terrain of a
population. Langford,
rather depicts how the social and political terrain of post-colonial
India shapes the experiences, observations and practices of the

Under the guise of altruism, one can be reminded of countless examples where biomedicine
has been used as a tool to uphold oppressive political doctrine. For
instance, Nancy Rose Hunt discusses political campaigns in Zaire during
the early 1900s, that were employed to encourage birth rate and to
increase African infant survival rate. Mothers were given milk as well
as medical knowledge regarding the health of their child. Missionaries
worked tirelessly to circumvent traditional practices of birth spacing or post-partum abstinence. Birth spacing
had been established in African cultures to ensure optimal care for the
child, however, since Zaire experienced a morbidly low population
during the years of early twentieth century colonialism, missionaries
adapted strategies that would delineate from the traditional pattern.
Interest in the medical well-being of Zaire's population proved to be
one of "Imperial importance" (Hunt 289). Colonists were addressed by
the president of an organization that emphasized healthcare
for mothers and infants with the following statement: "Help us by all
means in our ability to protect, to care for the child while educating
indigenous mother, it is a duty. We need black labor….To protect the
child in the Congo is a duty, not only of altruism, but of patriotism"
(Hunt 289). One can observe how medicine quickly delineates from a
pattern of objectivity to a politically motivated tactic that promotes
the efficacy of establishing colonial dominance.

In the Politics of Experience R. D. Laing
states, "The colonists not only mystify the natives….they have to
mystify themselves." He continues, "We in Europe and North America are
the colonists, and in order to sustain our amazing images of ourselves
as God's gift to the vast majority of the starving human species, we
have to interiorize
our violence upon ourselves and our children and to employ the rhetoric
of morality to describe this process" (36). It appears that scientific
objectivity and biomedical expertise have become our post-modern rhetoric of morality and are used as gauges to measure the sophistication of culture. Langford's
book shows how the fluid and adaptive quality of Ayurveda, both in
practice and in theory, transcends and "spills over" all attempts at encapsulation.

Images (in order of appearance)

  • Description: Program for
    conferance held in Minnesota (Understanding the need for
    Interfaith/Intercultural Togetherness and Education.
  • Description: Hmong Herbalist, May Lee

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Works Cited

  • Fadiman, Anne. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong
    Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. New
    York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
  • Henry, Rebecca R. "Measles, Hmong, and Metaphor: Culture Change and
    Illness Management under Conditions of Immigration."Medical
    Anthropology Quarterly 13.1 (1999): 32-50.
  • Hunt, Nancy Rose. "Le Bebe en Brousse." Tensions of Empire:
    Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World. Eds. F. Cooper and A. Stoler.
    Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
  • Kirmayer, Laurence J. "The Body's Insistence on Meaning: Metaphor
    as Presentation and Representation in Illness Experience." Medical
    Anthropology Quarterly 6.4 (1992): 323-346.
  • Laing, R. D. The Politics of Experience. New York: Pantheon Books, 1967.
  • Langford, Jean M. Fluent Bodies. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.
  • Mauss, Marcel. A General Theory of Magic. Trans. Robert Brain. London: Routledge Classics, 2001.
  • Taylor, Janelle S. "The Story Catches You and You Fall Down:
    Tragedy, Ethnography, and 'Cultural Competence.'" Medical Anthropology
    Quarterly. 17.2 (2003): 159-181.

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