The articles in this special issue tackle a problem at the heart of medical anthropology today—a problem that bedevils our methods, theoretical ambitions and public stance in the world. How should we rank the relative importance of local cultural meanings, on the one hand, and large-scale political and economic forces, on the other? That is, how should we train our sights on both culture and politics as we study the social contexts of suffering and apply our expertise to the worlds of policymaking and service delivery? How do we keep ‘culture’ and ‘politics’ in motion (and both are very broad analytical terms) without lapsing into one-sided analyses that champion the one term at the expense of the other? The following articles significantly advance the debate about such issues. They offer powerful theoretical models of the dialectic between culture-specific illness idioms and the operations of power that constrain people’s lives. They also re-think the very notion of culture in light of the complex networks—connecting individuals to nationstates, empires, NGOs, pharmaceutical firms and global capital—in which medical anthropologists increasingly work.