From “Lists of Traits” to “Open-Mindedness”: Emerging Issues in Cultural Competence Education

  • Angela C. JenksEmail author
Original Paper


The incorporation of “culture” into U.S. biomedicine has been increasing at a rapid pace over the last several decades. Advocates for “cultural competence” point to changing patient demographics and growing health disparities as they call for improved educational efforts that train health providers to care for patients from a variety of backgrounds. Medical anthropologists have long been critical of the approach to “culture” that emerges in cultural competence efforts, identifying an essentialized, static notion of culture that is conflated with racial and ethnic categories and seen to exist primarily among exotic “Others.” With this approach, culture can become a “list of traits” associated with various racial and ethnic groups that must be mastered by health providers and applied to patients as necessary. This article uses an ethnographic examination of cultural competence training to highlight recent efforts to develop more nuanced approaches to teaching culture. I argue that much of contemporary cultural competence education has rejected the “list of traits” approach and instead aims to produce a new kind of health provider who is “open-minded,” willing to learn about difference, and treats each patient as an individual. This shift, however, can ultimately reinforce behavioral understandings of culture and draw attention away from the social conditions and power differentials that underlie health inequalities.


Cultural competence Medical education Medical anthropology Race/ethnicity United States 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Los Angeles Southwest CollegeLos AngelesUSA

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