Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Culture: Epistemology & Ontology

After reading the work of Darby and Svoboda (2007) on genital mutilation and Hahn and Kleinman (1983) on the connectedness between belief and body, as well as in evaluating the ways in which I’ve been witness to the impact of culture on medical reality, it seems evermore evident to me now the ways in which one’s wider culture can come to profoundly affect what one knows and thinks about health. What does "sickness" mean? How are the mind and body connected in a way that can promote or deter healing? Consequentially, how might my answers to these questions fit into the larger order of power, agency, and resistance present within my cultural environment? It is in the negotiation of a space and appreciation for multiple answers to these questions that a critical-cultural approach to health values.

My personal background as a white female from rural Indiana situates me within a realm of conservative Western medical perspectives. Here, the normality of medicine is often determined by its acceptance within broader social constructions of what is “appropriate” to do with the body that God has graciously given you. In normative fashion, health is standardized such that deviation from any socially-determined “normal” belief or action set forth by a particular community is viewed in a negative light. Female genital mutilation is one example that fits these criteria, as such a “deviant” action would likely show, in this cultural boundary, a lack of appreciation towards the well-crafted body God provided.

In being reflexive, I am able to position myself while also being mindful of the ways in which my culture has and will continue to impact my views of medical reality and the conclusions I draw. These may differ greatly from the views put forward by different cultures. In this, I appreciate how knowing and valuing culture bring richness to understanding health. It is unfortunate that such cultural, epistemological, and ontological perspectives are rarely made explicit, especially in academic spaces.

1 comment:

Abigail said...

From the anthropological perspective, Das (1998) quotes Tylor (1974) in stating that “Culture or civilization taken in its widest ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits by man as a member of society” (p. 172). In the Introduction of Communicating Health, Mohan states that culture is defined as “the local contexts within which health [or other] meanings are constituted and negotiated” (p. 7). In class last week, culture, again from the communication perspective, was described as being dynamic, contextually situated, constituted, and contested.

At this point, I’m struggling to pinpoint solid questions that capture the essence of how my mind is trying to wrap itself around the fact that there are varying definitions of a term that ultimately act as a fulcrum from which both areas of discipline function independently and, I would assume, collectively at times. Regardless, here is an attempt at some primitive questions:

1) Are these definitions of culture well understood between the two areas of research (anthropology and communication)? If not, how do scholars in both fields most appropriately pull from each other’s research, sharing theoretical frameworks and methodologies? In the culture-centered approach, I see a good fit for naturalistic inquiry and ethnography, which, of course, have substantial roots in anthropology.

2)How do varying definitions of culture among disciplines provide a sound platform in which to advance human understanding, as individuals and societies? This question is especially relevant in the argument among scholars who question whether or not culture actually exists. Do the various definitions, depending on the discipline, weaken the defense?