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Less than 20 percent of the world’s population is serviced by Western allopathic biomedicine; the rest of the world’s population is served by other medical systems. The term “ethnomedicine” refers to the comparative study of these health care systems, many of which are becoming endangered. The major threats to native, indigenous medical systems are the hegemony of Western medicine, the emergence of new diseases (such as AIDS) that indigenous practitioners can not treat effectively, and the lack of new practitioners willing to spend the time it takes to complete the rigorous study of herbs, rituals, and diagnostic procedures that have marked these practices over the millennia. There are some signs of rapprochement and collaboration between Western medicine and the enthomedicines it is supplanting, a cooperation that might expand effective health care in developing countries and isolated areas of the world.

The term “ethnomedicine” refers to the comparative study of medical and other health care systems. It focuses on beliefs and practices in various human populations concerning sickness and health. Ethnomedicine observes and describes hygienic, preventive, and treatment practices, taking temporal and spatial considerations into account. Primary foci of this field are surgery, healing rituals, and the application of phytomedicines (plant preparations), practices that date back to the dawn of human civilizations.

Typical ethnomedical topics include etiology of sickness, medical and other health care practitioners and their roles, and the specific treatments utilized. The explosion of ethnomedical literature has been stimulated by an increased awareness of the forced displacement and acculturation of indigenous people and their consequences, as well as by the recognition of indigenous health concepts as a means of maintaining ethnic identities. In addition, the search for new phytomedicines and medical technologies has motivated researchers to study widely diverse systems of healing. Kleinman (1995) found this line of investigation an “appropriate means of representing pluralism…and of drawing upon those aspects of health and suffering to resist the positivism, the reductionism, and, regrettably, the wider society privilege” (p. 195). It is ironic that at the same time that an interest in ethnomedicine is growing, both in academic and medical circles, there are threats to the very pluralism that Kleinman hailed.


– Stanley Krippner