Meaning and Structure in Research in Medical Anthropology

in Anthropology in Action
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  • 1 University of Alabama wdressle@as.ua.edu

In an earlier paper (Dressler, 2001), I suggested that medical anthropology as a research enterprise could not ignore either meaning or structure in human social life in the production of health. Rather, drawing on the early work of Bourdieu, I argued that we need to take into account both how the world is configured by the collective meanings we impose upon it, as well as the social structural (and physical) constraints on our behaviour that exist outside those meanings. Human health can be understood, in part, as the intersection of meaning and structure. Here, my aim is to extend this perspective in three ways. Firstly, I present an expanded theoretical framework within which collectivei meaning and social structure can be conceptualised. A useful theoretical framework must take into account paradoxical features of culture, including the seeming contradiction that it is a property both of social aggregates and of individuals, and that, ultimately, social structural constraints external to individuals depend on shared meaning. Secondly, I review recent research employing this perspective conducted in Brazil, the southern United States and Puerto Rico. These studies have all employed a 'structural-constructivist' theoretical orientation, using especially the concept of 'cultural consonance', or the degree to which individuals incorporate shared meaning into their own beliefs and behaviour. Where individual efforts to attain a higher cultural consonance are frustrated by structural constraints, poor health results. Thirdly, I consider some of the policy implications of this perspective. While much work in traditional public health focuses on a highly individualised notion of meaning (as in 'health beliefs'), it seems unlikely that the health of populations can be altered substantially without taking into account the structures that constrain individual action.

Anthropology in Action

Journal for Applied Anthropology in Policy and Practice

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