Workshop "From Medical Pluralism to Medical Diversity?"


From Medical Pluralism to Medical Diversity?

22 June 2009

Organised by Gabriele Alex and Kristine Krause (Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Department of Socio-Cultural Diversity) 


The topic of Medical Pluralism – the co-existence of diverse medical practices and forms of knowledge – has long been a field of investigation within Medical Anthropology. But where earlier studies focussed on how different healing resources and medical traditions in a given local context are utilized by patients and their therapy networks, research over the past few decades has moved into fields such as the professionalization of traditional practitioners, competition amongst medical traditions in global health markets, the combination of different therapies in hospital settings, biodiversity and medicines as cultural heritage, the migration of medical experts, travelling knowledge practices, and the circulation of material medica within global networks.

Discussion on diverse medical practices has identified a number of problems related to the conceptualisation of Medical Pluralism. The normative concept of pluralism relies on the idea that significant differences in a given social field can be governed through an institutionalized politics of recognition. Transferred to the context of medical knowledge, the notion of medical pluralism presupposes the equal coexistence of medical traditions, and tends to obscure hierarchical positioning and conflict between different practices. From this perspective then, the existing power geometry between medical institutions, states, and international bodies, may be too readily overlooked.

In recent years, studies have demonstrated that medical knowledge and practices are becoming internally more diverse, and that the boundaries between them are not as clear-cut as the discourse about systems would suggest. Instead of lazily assuming the existence of such boundaries, it seems there is more of interest to be gleaned through an exploration of when and how such boundaries are drawn, reinforced, or crossed. Taking the politically vested interests between different medical disciplines into account, scholars have made a strong case for looking at the terms “medical pluralism” and “traditional” or “modern” medicine as objects of study in their own right, since they form part of the field of enquiry.

The idea of “medical systems”, which underlies much of the literature on medical pluralism, is another contentious area. Although a focus on the systemic character of codified medical knowledge in written sources other than biomedical textbooks has been an important contribution to the debate, the concept of systems reproduces the epistemology of biomedicine, and perpetuates a tendency to construct single, bounded entities. The constant interchange and mutual influence of medical traditions, across both geographical and cultural “space”, the overlapping character of different medical practices, the “latticed knowledge” of medical experts, the interwoven appropriations of patients in the process of undergoing sickness and seeking cure – such phenomena are inherently resistant to representation through the concept of systems.

In the planned workshop our aim is to bring together different regional and topical expertise, so as to revisit these debates on Medical Pluralism. Our intention is to create a dialogue between thematically and theoretically differing research strands within Medical Anthropology, such as religious healing, biodiversity, new medical technologies, and new theories on materiality. Based on this exchange, we invite participants to critically interrogate the extent to which the notion of diversity permits a refocussing of the debate.