Where There is no Patient: An Anthropological Treatment of a Biomedical Category

Original Paper


This work anthropologically applies the concept of ‘personhood’ to the Western biomedical patient role, and through cross-cultural comparisons with wellness-seeker roles (e.g. among the Maya of Guatemala and others) it seeks to discern the implications for global healthcare of assuming the universality of the “patient” role. Here, particular ethnographic attention is given to the presumption of the “patient” role in places and situations where, because of cultural and linguistic variation in local wellness-seeker roles and practices, there may be no “patient.” It is hoped that establishing the biomedical patient role (with the clinical expectations, communicative and comportment practices that prefigure it) as acquired rather than intuitive, will help redirect cultural competence to the acquisition of patienthood, broadening it from an endless accrual of cultural inventories by physicians. Also it aims to shift existing biomedical associations of cultural variations in wellness-seeking away from a priori assessments of clinical defiance towards deeper understandings of the kinds of cultural differences that may make the difference treatment outcomes.


Global health Cultural competence Biomedicine Patient Maya Guatemala 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of California, RiversideRiversideUSA

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