On biomedicine

Atwood D. Gaines and Robbie Davis-Floyd

This entry appears in the Encyclopedia of Medical Anthropology, eds. Carol and Melvin Ember. Yale: Human Relations Area Files, 2003.

The designation “Biomedicine” as the name of the professional medicine of the West emphasizes the fact that this is a preeminently biological medicine. As such, it can be distinguished from the professional medicines of other cultures and, like them, its designation can be considered a proper noun and capitalized. The label Biomedicine was for these reasons conferred by Gaines and Hahn (1985) on what had variously been labeled “scientific medicine,” “cosmopolitan medicine,” “Western medicine,” “allopathic medicine” and simply, “medicine” (Engel 1980; Kleinman 1980; Leslie 1976; Mishler 1981). “Medicine” as a label was particularly problematic: it effectively devalued the
health care systems of other cultures as “non-medical,” “ethnomedical,” or merely “folk”–and thus inefficacious
–systems based on “belief” rather than presumably certain medical “knowledge”(Good 1994). The term “allopathic” is still often employed as it designates the biomedical tradition of working “against pathology,” wherein the treatment is meant to oppose or attack the disease as directly as possible.

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