Health and Healing in Latin America

“Makes me think much more critically about not only health but everything.”

“This course really helped me draw connections to things that I have learned in the sciences, and how understanding culture is a vital part of working in the health professions.”

“This course has helped me explore anthropological writing and increase my ‘vocabulary.’ Very useful class.”

“Concepts like structural violence and neoliberalism are great to know about in all kinds of subjects and as a citizen in general. I feel like I know more about the world from taking this course.”

“This is my favorite anthropology course I’ve taken at Muhlenberg. I like being able to connect my public health minor to the material and how the instructor mixed anthropology with public health.”

“I never thought about the basic concept of biomedicine! Saw how Western elite I was.”

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This seminar explores the social and cultural aspects of illness, health and healing in modern Latin America. We study anthropological texts and films that focus on a range of health beliefs, illness experiences, and healing practices in the region. These include ethnomedical belief systems, ritual and religious healing, botanical and other forms of popular medicine, local adaptations of biomedical knowledge, and state-provided public health care. Students analyze meanings and experiences of illness and health as they play out in Latin American settings, including in-depth case studies of Costa Rica, Cuba, and Brazil. We also reflect on the relationship between medical knowledge and practice, social inequalities (like those of gender, class, and race), state power, religion, and international health politics. Rather than assuming that knowledge of health and medicine is universal, value-neutral, and separable from the broader cultural context, students learn about the cultural and historical construction of popular and professional medicine, and how sickness and healing provide valuable insights into large-scale social, economic, and political developments in Latin America.

Course objectives include familiarizing students with the complex and ever-changing social and cultural formation of illness, health, and healing, and applying these insights to the study of different cases in Latin America. More broadly, this class extends students’ knowledge of and engagement with Latin American studies and anthropological approaches to illness, health, and healing (including public health). Class discussions, activities, and assignments are designed to help students improve their fluency in critical thinking, public speaking, and writing.

Example of student work, an interactive multimedia “game” to illustrate the difficulties of accessing public health care in Bolivia: http://textadventures.co.uk/games/view/ynqwoum4nkgokp0fvbivqa/tuberculosis-treatment-in-bolivia