Anthropology and Development Cooperation

Red Cross volunteer at an Ebola awareness campaign in Matoto Market, Conakry, Guinea

The rationale or basis of health anthropology, also referred to as medical anthropology (notes 3 and 4), is that disease and illness have deep cultural roots. Oftentimes, in order to understand and address a particular disease or illness, and specifically if located in a more-or-less unknown cultural settings, it has to be addressed through an inter-disciplinary approach, involving medical staff working closely with social scientists, specifically anthropologists.

On Health Anthropology

The traditional term for the specialization within anthropokogy that addresses health, illness, and disease is 'medical anthropology'. Over time a realization has come about that this term - it was coined by anthropologists in United States - is limited as well as limiting. This is so becaue of the gradual realization that the terms 'medicine' and 'medical' are closely associated with Western medisine, in effect, what is at times referred to as the Western medical system. Other cultural underestandings of health, and of the causes and treatment of disease and illness, is based in and reflect the fact that they are part and parcel of specific cultures. They are, in effect, bodies of medical knowledge that are based on different rationales, including an understanding of the definition of health, disease, and illness, and of causality and treatment. In response to this realization the term 'medical anthropologyo' has gradually come to be replaced by the term 'health anthropology', where the latter is understood to be more neutral, objective, and inclusive.

Anthropology and Development Cooperation

This relativization of health, disease, and illness is basic to, and a consequence of, the foundational cultural relativist stance of anthropology. In this context it makes sense to accept that there is not only one type or category of knowledge that is connected with health, disease, and illness. The term 'knowledge' accordingly should be used in its its plural form (note 5).

The Case of Ebola in Guinea


Lars T Soeftestad

1/  This article is based on the article "Post-Ebola, What Work Awaits Anthropologists?" (Devex 2015) which, in turn, is based partly on an interview with me.
2/  Image credit: Idrissa Soumaré / afreecom / CC BY-ND. About: Red Cross volunteer at an Ebola awareness campaign in Matoto Market, Conakry, Guinea (see Source).
3/  Relevant Devblog articles: "Networks and networking" at:  |  "Networks and virtual communication at:  |  "Roma and health wareness 2" at:  |  "Roma and wealth awareness 1" at:  |  "Train or be trained vs eat or be eaten" at:
4/  Further relevant Devblog articles: "
EEA and Norway Grants: evaluation of own projects" (to be published)  |  "EEA and Norway Grants: donor country partners" at:  |  "Devblog: on Roma" at:  |  "Poland and Norway: transparency and trust" at:  |  "Bulgaria: Roma in the penitentiary system" at:  |  "EEA and Norway Grants: my project portfolio" at:  |  "EEA and Norway Grants and evaluation" at:  |  "Culture vs individualism" at:  |  "Terrorism, trust, and onclusion" at:  |  "Ethnographic film and advocacy" at:
5/  It comes as no suprise that the term 'knowledge' does have a plural equivalent, and it is hardly used. 
6/  Permalink at:
7/  This article was published 31 July 2016. It was revised 21 February 2023.

Devex. 2015. "Post-Ebola, what work awaits anthropologists?" URL:

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