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Ethnomedicine is an interdisciplinary field v. a. between ethnology (ethnology) and medicine , which strives for a cultural-scientific understanding and a culture-scientifically informed practice of medicine.


Depending on the cultural or health science perspective, what is understood by ethnomedicine is different and in large parts even controversial.

Ethnomedicine, for example, deals with “culture-specific disease concepts and symptom complexes as well as their therapy” in a subject-related understanding of the medical anthropologist Beatrix Pfleiderer- Becker.

According to the more method and theory-oriented understanding of the medical historian Volker Roelcke , ethnomedicine is now a scientific field of work that can be largely equated with medical ethnology , in which the methods and theories of ethnology are applied to the practices, norms and theories of medicine of a social group ( ethnicity ) or by companies .

The use of the word ethnomedicine - based on the English word ethnomedicine  - to denote folk medicine in contrast to scientific medicine is now considered problematic and outdated. Today it is mainly used by groups and individuals who want to use actual or invented healing methods from non-European or old European populations for the sick or corresponding experience seekers in western industrial societies, i.e. are more likely to be assigned to the esoteric or alternative medicine area.

In scientific, especially university or academic contexts, the term ethnomedicine was not used for healing practice itself, but for dealing with, in particular research, initially only non-European and “folk medicine” disease concepts and healing practices. Later, ethnomedicine in this sense of a scientific field also consisted in the application of ethnological theories and methods to scientifically oriented medicine, especially in its interaction with other healing methods.

In contrast to medical ethnology, with which there are great personal, thematic and methodological overlaps, ethnomedicine saw itself not so much as a subject or discipline, but as a permanent interdisciplinary area, while medical ethnology is de facto and in terms of its self-image a subdiscipline of ethnology . Analogous to anthropology of religion , economic anthropology , political anthropology , legal anthropology or ethnomusicology as other sub-disciplines of anthropology has medical anthropology to be the field of medicine only as an object or object under examination, without even part of it, while most representatives ethnomedicine these as efforts to improve health, that is, pursuit of the basic medical task, understood and understood. In accordance with this rather professional understanding of professional policy, almost all medical ethnology are ethnologists and can only take on functions as such in the corresponding AG of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Völkerkunde, while the former Ethnomedicine Working Group, now the Working Group Ethnology and Medicine (AGEM), is open to all professional groups in all positions was and is.

The division of the area that covers Medical Anthropology in the English-speaking world into ethnomedicine and medical ethnology is v. a. a consequence of the rigid demarcations between faculties and departments at German universities, which effectively excludes equal participation within medicine and ethnology.

The term ethnomedicine , which grew historically in the German-speaking area, was previously the only one and is still used in current literature , thus indicates the peculiarity of using ethnological theories (e.g. medicine as a cultural system) and methods (e.g. medicine as a cultural system) within the framework and interest of medicine. B. Ethnography) and / or to research and act in ethnologically developed or relevant subject areas (healing experts and rituals, medicinal plants, indigenous disease concepts), similar to ethnopharmacology , ethnopsychiatry , ethnopsychoanalysis , which are occasionally seen as sub-areas of ethnomedicine.

History and Scientific Institutionalization

Since early medical texts, such as the Corpus Hippocraticum of Greek antiquity, already deal with foreign medicine, and also in the travel reports of early modern European ship doctors, healing methods of visited populations are described, the expansion of European medicine and the emergence of the Ethnology at the time of imperial colonialism in the late 19th century marked the beginning of a systematic academic study of non-European as well as local "folk medicine". In line with the unity of " anthropology, prehistory and ethnology " at the time, the healing methods of foreign peoples were relics of early human history understood and used to supposedly fill gaps in knowledge.

In this sense, the doctor and ethnologist Georg Buschan collected and systematized reports on non-European and ancient medicine during the National Socialist interest in racial difference.

The academic establishment of the concept of ethnomedicine and its subject is closely linked to Erich Drobec in the mid-1950s after the change from racial and evolutionist to cultural explanations for differences between peoples.

In Germany, on the initiative of the ethnologist Joachim Sterly in 1970 in Hamburg , scientists from the various disciplines joined the Ethnomedicine Working Group (AGEM e.V.) to promote the subject, to publish a scientific journal (formerly ethnomedicine , since 1978 Curare , ( ISSN  0344- 8622 )) and for public relations work by means of conferences and publications (including Curare special volumes).

While “Medical Anthropology” or “Anthropologie médicale” has been established in medicine and anthropology for decades at universities in English and, to a lesser extent, in French, it was not until 1993 that a department for ethnomedicine was set up in Institute for the History of Medicine at the University of Vienna made a first foray into German-speaking countries.

In 1997, the above-mentioned Medical Anthropology working group was founded in what was then the German Society for Ethnology, today the German Society for Social and Cultural Anthropology , which has since developed and expanded medical-ethnological research and teaching in German-speaking countries and the professionalization of the area is concerned. The members of the working group investigate health and medicine-related phenomena on the basis of ethnological theories and methods and have presented their research in a series of conferences and anthologies.

Goals, working methods, fields of activity and application


The goals of ethnomedicine are both to record medical knowledge and practices in different cultural areas, to conduct cross-cultural and comparative studies and to preserve the corresponding cultural heritage in many countries around the world (which in the UN system corresponds to the mandate of UNESCO , which in the framework of the bioethics but now also the protection of users of traditional medicine as one of its tasks), and is overcome and in health care and health programs by taking into account traditional healing practices that may occur to improve health care (which since the late 1970s, the wHO to their duties counts).

According to Wulf Schiefenhövel, the goals of ethnomedicine are:

  • Acquisition of medical knowledge and practices from different cultures
  • Cultural comparison of the principles of health maintenance and disease treatment
  • Calling attention to integrable traditional medicine into health care
  • Generating understanding among doctors and nurses for non-Western medical systems
  • Realization of the shortcomings and the real achievements of one's own medical system
  • Mediation of perspectives and procedures geared towards the primary needs of the sufferer.


As an interdisciplinary field of work that combines medicine and related natural sciences as well as social, social and cultural sciences such as ethnology , medical sociology and psychology , ethnomedicine v. a. with traditional medical systems in a cultural comparison (for example in comparison with “modern” systems) and with interactions, for example within medical development aid or global health.

Through ethnomedicine, ethnological terms and an awareness of cultural dimensions have been introduced into various medical fields since the 1970s.

Deconstruction of the biological understanding of medicine

An essential component of ethnomedical perspectives is a differentiation between sensual world conceptions of illnesses of a subject (for example a patient's description of symptoms ) and their biological dimension. This approach justifies the special interest in medical specialists and functional personnel in medical systems, who are significantly involved in the translation between the subjective disease concept and culture-adjusted biological description path.

Fields of activity

According to the multidisciplinary character of ethnomedicine, a distinction can be made between the following approaches - partly more applied, partly more knowledge-oriented:

  • Pathodemography (epidemiology with adapted methods)
  • Critical Medical Anthropology (influence of socio-economic and political power relations)
  • Hermeneutic - constructivist approach (consideration of the socio-cultural environment / the embedding of illness experiences )
  • Human ecology (influence of natural environmental conditions)
  • Clinical Medical Anthropology (improving compliance of patients in treatment)
  • Physical anthropology (which in the USA belongs to the four-field anthropology, but in Germany after 1945 hardly has any relation to ethnology)

Fields of application

The results of ethnomedical research can be used, for example, in intercultural patient contact and in the implementation of medical development cooperation projects. With ethnomedical perspectives, critical considerations and deconstructions of existing conceptual systems are mostly connected. In this way, ethnomedicine also wants to serve as a background for reflecting on one's own understanding of medicine.

See also


  • Arthur Kleinman : Patients and Healers in the Context of Culture. An Exploration of the Borderland Between Anthropology, Medicine, and Psychiatry. University of California Press, Berkeley 1980, ISBN 0-520-04511-4 ( excerpt in Google book search).
  • Wolfgang Bichmann, Beatrix Pfleiderer, Disease and Culture: An Introduction to Ethnomedicine . Reimer, Berlin 1985.
  • Wolfgang Bichmann, Katarina Greifeld, Beatrix Pfleiderer: Ritual and healing. An introduction to ethnomedicine. 2nd revised edition. Reimer, Berlin 1995.
  • Katarina Greifeld (ed.): Ritual and healing. An introduction to medical ethnology. 3rd, fundamentally revised and expanded edition. Reimer, Berlin 2003, ISBN 3-496-02751-7 .
  • Katarina Greifeld (ed.): Medical ethnology. An introduction. Reimer, Berlin 2013, ISBN 978-3-496-02859-8 .
  • Thomas Lux (Ed.): Cultural Dimensions of Medicine. Ethnomedicine - Medical Anthropology. Reimer, Berlin 2003, ISBN 3-496-02766-5 .
  • Bruni Ludwig, Beatrix Pfleiderer-Becker: Materials for ethnomedicine. Bensheim 1978 (= spectrum of the third world , 15).
  • Nikolaus Münzel: Brief introduction to ethnomedicine. In: Würzburg medical history reports. Volume 3, 1985, pp. 5-9.
  • Volker Roelcke : Ethnomedicine. In: Werner E. Gerabek , Bernhard D. Haage, Gundolf Keil , Wolfgang Wegner (eds.): Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte. De Gruyter, Berlin 2005, ISBN 3-11-015714-4 , pp. 374-379.
  • Byron J. Good, Michael MJ Fischer, SS Willen (Eds.): A Reader in Medical Anthropology. Theoretical Trajectories, Emergent Realities. Wiley, Malden / Chichester 2010, ISBN 978-1-4051-8314-7 .

Web links

Commons : Ethnomedicine  - Pictures and Media Files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Bruni Ludwig, Beatrix Pfleiderer-Becker: materials for ethnomedicine. Bensheim 1978, p. 11 (= spectrum of the third world , 15).
  2. Volker Roelcke: Ethnomedicine. 2005, p. 374.
  3. E. Wolff: "Folk Medicine" - farewell on installments. From the definitional to the heuristic understanding of the term. In: Zeitschrift für Volkskunde , Volume 94, 1998, pp. 233-257.
  4. Walter Bruchhausen: Ethnomedicine between health and culture: Establishment problems in German medicine . In: curare. Journal of Medical Ethnology . tape 41 , no. 3 + 4 , 2018, pp. 23-34 .
  5. Walter Bruchhausen: The evolutionist fallacy from the foreign to the early. The analogy between “primitive peoples” and primitive man in medical historiography . In: Medical History Journal . tape 41 , 2006, p. 5-30 .
  6. Max Bartels: The medicine of the primitive peoples. Ethnological contributions to the prehistory of medicine . Leipzig 1893.
  7. ^ Oskar von Hovorka, Adolf Kronfeld : Comparative folk medicine. 2 volumes. Stuttgart 1908-1909.
  8. Georg Buschan: About medicinal magic and healing art in the life of peoples. History of Urheilkunde, its development and charisma up to the present day . Arnold, Berlin 1941.
  9. Erich Drobec: Contributions to the method ethnomedicine . In: Josef Haekel (Ed.): The Vienna School of Ethnology . Vienna 1956, p. 193-204 .
  10. : website. German Society for Social and Cultural Anthropology
  11. Traditional medicine and its ethical implications. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, accessed January 4, 2018 .
  12. ^ WHO : Traditional Medicine and Health Care Coverage . Ed .: WHO. Geneva 1983, ISBN 92-4154163-6 .
  13. ^ Wulf Schievenhövel: From the workshop. Some thoughts on curare. In: Curare. Volume 1, Issue 1, 1978, p. 10.
  14. Volker Roelcke (2005), p. 377 f.
  15. Thomas Lux: Many names for the same thing? Ethnomedicine, Medical Anthropology and Medical Anthropologiy. In. That. (Ed.): Cultural dimensions of medicine . Reimer, Berlin 2003, pp. 10-30.