, Volume 5, Issue 4, pp 317-335

When rational men fall sick: An inquiry into some assumptions made by medical anthropologists

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Abstract

Medical anthropologists spend most of their time eliciting and interpreting people's statements about sickness and health. For this task, they make certain assumptions about the importance of language and reason. In this paper I argue that their assumptions are tailored to fit an hypothetical Rational Man rather than real people. The concept of ‘explanatory models of sickness’ is used to illustrate this point.

My critique begins by drawing attention to two non-cognitive determinants of people's statements: their degree of emotional arousal and their capacities for discoursing on medical subjects. These determinants are briefly discussed and then set aside, to make room for the paper's argument proper. This starts with the observation that medical anthropologists tend to overlook the fact that they have established a cognitive no man's land stretching between their informants' statements and the cognitive structures which are supposed to generate these statements.

I survey this void, using a five-fold model of medical knowledge. People use one kind of knowledge to organize their medical experiences and perceptions. In Rational Man writing, this form of knowledge is considered equivalent to cognitive structures (e.g., causal models, classificatory schemes), but I argue that it also includes knowledge of prototypical sickness events and knowledge that is embedded in actions, social relations, and material equipment. The theoretical implications of the five-fold model are outlined.

This is followed by an analysis of the reasoning processes in which people use medical knowledge to produce the statements whose meaning we wish to learn. I demonstrate the importance of being able to distinguish operational and monothetic forms of reasoning from pre-operational and polythetic ones. Rational Man writers are described as ignoring the latter pair. The concept of ‘prototypes’ is reintroduced to illustrate these points.