The Anthropology of Materia Medica

The Anthropology of Materia
Framing Materia Medica
• Movement, exchange, value
– social relations -- local and global
• Symbolic anthropology – materia medica
as drug & as signs/symbols
• Efficacy – pharmacological, meaning
response (placebo effect, and social
• Local health care systems & medical
Economic systems & Materia
• Production and allocation of material
goods and services (materia medica)
• Do not operate independently of other
aspects of society
• Especially closely associated with political
systems which are concerned with the
allocation of power and authority
Exchange and Social Relations
• reciprocity
– generalized
– balanced
– negative
• redistribution
• Market (contract)
• Exchange, social distance, social relations
Reciprocity and Social Distance
• In time and space
• Establishes and maintains social distance
• Can change already established social
Reciprocity and “the Gift”
(M. Mauss)
• The gift received has to be repaid
• The persons represented are moral
persons (relational) -- clans, tribes,
families, etc
• Obligatory & interested exchanges
• the members of an organized group
contribute goods or money into a common
pool or fund
• usually a central authority has the privilege
and responsibility to make decisions about
how the goods or money later will be
allocated among the group as a whole
Market or contract exchange
• forces of supply and demand determine
costs and prices, goods or services are
sold for money, which in turn is used to
purchase other goods, with the ultimate
goals of acquiring more money and
accumulating more goods
– Disinterested
– Legally defined
The Clinical Encounter
• A site for these exchange(s) of materia medica
• Social relations of practitioners & patients (and
• Phatic ties – revealing or sharing feelings or
establishing an atmosphere; sociability rather
than communicating ideas
• Charged relations -- Suffering, sickness, trauma,
• Not just what we eat but the resources we use
• Demand (consumption) and desire
• Consumption is an aspect of the overall political
economy (Baudrillard & Marx)
• Collective regulation of demand/consumption
• A way of sending and receiving messages (M.
• Goods and services consumed circulate regimes of
value (Appadurai)
• Prestige group, class, and
taste/demand/consumption (Bourdieu)
– The social life of things (Appadurai)
Hopi Zuni War God
c. 1930
A traditional Hopi Kachina of the Zuni Dark Warrior God of the Nadir. The piece
is carved of Cottonwood root and painted with a combination of mineral
pigments and poster paints of the era. The piece is adorned with turkey and
pheasant feathers on the head and the ruff. Note the period-style--the legs are
beginning to get longer, and the arms are starting to bend and come away from
the side. 11 1/2" tall.
From Abayu:da to Museum to
Aboriginal Art: regimes of value
• Abayu:da put in specific shrines by Zunis
as overseers and protectors of the land
and its people
• Cared for by specific clans
• War chiefs are responsible for abayu:da
• Museums collect & exhibit for
“educational” purposes
• Aboriginal art market: authenticity as value
The social life & cultural biography
of a medicine
Regimes of Value
• Material things (materia medica),
exchange, and the regimes of value that
they invoke.
• articulation of specific individual and group
(re)production with larger ideological
discourses and material cycles of
production, circulation, exchange, and
Global Flows & Materia Medica
• five interrelated, yet relatively autonomous
– Ethnoscapes
– Mediascapes
– Technoscapes
– Financescapes
– ideoscapes
Symbols & Symbolic Anthropology
• symbols as instrumentalities of various forces -physical, moral, economic, political
– triggers of social action
• operating in changing fields of social relationships
• symbols are multi-vocal
– complexity of associations
– enables a wide range of groups & individuals to relate
to the same symbol in a variety of ways
• primacy of feeling
• symbols are semantically open
• indexical
The “sympathetic magic” of Materia
• Similarity & contagion – metaphor &
• Sacred & profane – ritual & symbols
• The effectiveness of symbols (Levi-Strauss)
• Materia medica & performativity
– From referential or symbolic to indexical
– the social construction of reality, and reflexivity
– the enactment of the poetic function, is a highly
reflexive mode of communication
The Efficacies of Materia Medica
• Pharmacological effects on bodies
• the placebo effect & the nocebo effect
– Meaning response
• Related to notions of “health”
• Social efficacy
– Effects of medicines on the relations between
those enacting illness and treatment
• Efficacy assessed by multiple social actors
who have own criteria & expectations
Local Health Care Systems &
Medical Pluralism
• The health care system is a concept,
not an entity – a conceptual model held
by the researcher
• The model of a health care systems
derived by the researcher by examining
how people think about health care, the
ways people act in it and use its
Local Health Care Systems
• health care as a system that is social and
cultural in origin, structure, function, and
• Health care systems are forms of social
• Clinical practice occurs in and creates
particular social worlds – clinical reality
– the health related aspects of social reality –
attitudes and norms concerning sickness, clinical
relationships, and healing activities
Hierarchies of Resort & Medical
• agency - "patients... are reflective actors
who review information about health and
illness and make decisions based on what
makes sense given their experience of
bodily changes, the framework of their
prior knowledge, and the everyday life
situation in which illness is lived and
treatment is used."
Materia Medica
• Material things that have social lives and cultural
• Material things that have the power to transform
bodies/minds – the significations of efficacy
• Transformative power put to different purposes
– From therapeutic to toxic
– Simultaneous noxious & beneficial
• Material things used intentionally to achieve and
effect in some body – change minds, situations
and modes of understanding