Trust talk and alienable talk in healing: a problem of medical diversity

by David Parkin

Working Papers WP 11-11
October 2011
ISSN 2192-2357 (MMG Working Papers Print)

Full text: pdf

Co-existing medical traditions operate at different levels of scale. In rural eastern Africa there are diviners and herbalists whose clients are drawn from the immediate neighbourhood. Some develop healing reputations more widely over a region or nation, sometimes with prophetic and witch-finding powers. Biomedical clinics and hospitals are also interlinked regionally, nationally and internationally. Patients or carers may seek healthcare by moving through these different levels, sometimes beginning with a neighbourhood healer and sometimes trying out different therapies simultaneously. Sicknesses and misfortunes are often first discussed within a family or homestead, with concern for the victim extending to all its members. The talk is based on assumed trust among its members. But, if unresolved, the affliction may trigger a crisis which breaks the trust, so that healers beyond the neighbourhood are sought, whether prophetic/witch-finding or biomedical. Taken out of the context of family and homestead intimacy, the talk blames the ailment on the malevolence or negligence of individuals in the community. Talk about sickness among sufferers and between them and healers, is thus transformed from that which seeks resolution in amity to that which seeks culpability and, sometimes, retribution. A similar process of sickness talk changing through its appropriation by wider scale and more powerful medical authority occurs also in western biomedical hospitals and clinics.

David Parkin is Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Oxford, and during 2009-2011 was at the Max Planck Institute for Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Goettingen, Germany, helping to coordinate research projects on medical and sociolinguistic diversity.

Contact: david.parkin(at)anthro.ox.ac.uk and All Souls College, Oxford OX1 4AL, UK.