Authored by: Geoffrey Samuel

The Ashgate Research Companion to Anthropology

Print publication date:  May  2015
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754677031
eBook ISBN: 9781315612744
Adobe ISBN: 9781317044116


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Healing, which I use in this chapter as a generic term for practices intended to relieve pain, restore damage or deterioration, or assist in the attainment of the best possible functioning of the human organism (Alter 1999), has been a major preoccupation within virtually all societies studied by anthropologists. Yet while practices and ideas concerning healing have been noted from the early days of anthropology, their study took place for many years in a curiously oblique manner. Anthropologists looked at systems of thought relating to healing, and at magical, ritual or shamanic practices intended to bring about healing. Healing itself, however, as a practice that might bring about genuine results in the real world, remained largely out of focus until the development of medical anthropology in the 1980s. This was because the organic effects of healing were seen as the concern of medicine, not of anthropology, and the medical science of the times did not take these healing practices seriously. This was particularly so in relation to those modes of healing which were not based on pharmacological substances or other material procedures: shamanic healing, spirit healing and the like. Such practices, generally classed as magic, religion or ritual, are the primary focus in this chapter, since it is here that anthropological analysis has had the most to contribute. As we will see, these modes of healing point to aspects of the healing process that are (or at any rate should be) also significant for biomedical practice.

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