Biomedicine in Africa – an anthropology of law, organization, science and technology

Biomedicine in Africa – an anthropology of law, organization, science and technology

Axis 2: The intersections of biomedicine and traditional medicine

The second axis deals with the role of traditional therapies in the making of biomedicine in Africa as well as the influence of biomedicine on those therapies. The ethnographic studies focus on the ways in which traditional and modern medical practices intermingle, interfere, and interrupt one another in the circulation of medicines, practitioners, legal and ethical frameworks, and laboratory technologies.

Biomedicine has long confronted traditional medicine, perhaps most explicitly in the bodies of afflicted people seeking care, in therapy management groups that shape these healing trajectories, and in the expectations of treatment they embody. On this axis, we are interested in the effects of this sustained interaction. While the juxtaposition of traditional versus modern medicine was part of the discursive order of the colonial encounter, it has also provided a ground for rethinking the categories of traditional and modern medicine.

When new afflictions and new corresponding traditional therapies appear, they usually reflect radical changes in political, economic, social and ecological conditions, thereby challenging the entire classificatory system. In Africa today healers often attempt to treat biomedical disease entities, while national and international organizations invest in the professionalization of traditional practitioners and their integration within local health services. Traditional medicines and traditional practitioners have found ways to travel within national health-service delivery networks and global scientific networks. By focusing on the ways in which traditional medicines and experts travel, this research seeks to reveal how traditional medicine permeates the therapeutic landscape in Africa and beyond.

Through this line of questioning, we seek to challenge simple dichotomies that frame biomedicine as either dominating or liberating and traditional medicine as either an obstacle to development or a valuable object of cultural heritage. Rather our individual projects examine how political, bureaucratic, and scientific interests in traditional medicine in Africa provoke new forms of experimentation, new ethical regimes for research, and new technologies for care and distribution.

Ethnographies of these changes in the development, organization, and uses of medical knowledge provide insight into the ways in which Africa is central to contemporary biomedical knowledge and practice. They also raise questions about the relations between medicine and new forms of nationalism, regionalism, and globalism.

General questions of axis 2

  • How are the objectifications of traditional medicine by modern science instru­mentalized by its practitioners, by biomedical actors, and by the state?
  • How do claims of universal validity enable traditional knowledge about bodies and medicines to circulate?
  • How are such claims constituted through the making of scientific “facts” about the efficacy of traditional medicines?
  • How does the work of medical science shape Africa and how is medical science in turn shaped by this work?

The term “traditional” should in one sense always be placed in quotations marks or inverted commas because its meaning can be understood only in relation to a particular discursive order. Colonialism made most African medical practices appear traditional, and genetic medicine currently makes most of conventional modern biomedicine appear traditional. We have for this reason abandoned the use of inverted commas or quotation marks in all such cases. Readers should be aware that we have done this not only for the term “traditional,” but for numerous other terms as well, for example, for “male” and “female.”

Go to Editor View