Special Study Module (Year 4) in Medical Anthropology

Teaching for Oxford Medical School

Special Study Module (Year 4) in Medical Anthropology:

(Hilary Term)

Coordinators: Dr Neil Armstrong (neil.armstrong@anthro.ox.ac.uk) and Dr Adelaida Barros (adelaida.barroscajder@gtc.ox.ac.uk).

Medical Anthropology looks at the social and cultural components of health and illness. By conducting qualitative ethnographic research, we understand patients’ perspectives on health and sickness, treatment and recovery in light of wider community practices, social networks, and political-economic settings.

Course aims:

  • To provide practical training in how to conduct ethnographic research
  • To learn how ethnographic techniques can complement healthcare delivery and research

In the first week, students will have one lecture introducing medical anthropology and ethnography. The lecture will include practical exercises and advice on how to conduct ethnography.

By the end of week 1 each student will have devised a research question to be investigated ethnographically. This forms the basis of a personal ethnographic project.

The topics could be (but is not restricted to) one of the following:

  • Disability and exclusion
  • Stigma and mental health
  • Gender and difference
  • Illness narratives and illness experience
  • Indigenous medical practices and indigenous health
  • Post-colonialism
  • Neoliberalism
  • Antivaccine movements and medical dissidents
  • Global health
  • Health policies

After choosing a research topic, each student should perform 1 to 2 hours of participant-observation or other ethnographic techniques (interviews, photo-elicitation, etc) during which notes should be taken.

In week 2 and 3 we meet as a class to discuss ongoing research. Classes include practical exercises to prepare students to conduct ethnographic research and help with data analysis.

We will also conduct individual tutorials throughout the course.

In week 4, students will present to the class. The presentation is a reflective analysis of ethnographic notes in relation to the initial research question.


What is ethnography?

  • A qualitative methodology
  • Observing and interacting with target groups or communities in their real-life environments (daily activities) for an extended period
  • Data are gathered from a range of different sources but the main one is participant-observation (others are interviews, life histories, collection of documents such as photographs or art artefacts, and archives studies)
  • The categories used to interpret what people say and do emerge from the data itself (they are not built into the data or defined a priori)


When can it be useful?

  • Define a problem when it is not yet clear or when it is complex and multifactorial
  • Identify the range of settings where a problem occurs
  • Define the participants
  • Explore the factors associated with a problem
  • Identify unexpected outcomes
  • Design measures that match the characteristics of a specific target group
  • Understand people’s perspectives on illness and health, treatment and recovery


Recommended introductory readings:

  • Good, et. al. (2010) A Reader in Medical Anthropology: Theoretical Trajectories, Emergent Realities. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Lock & Nguyen (2010) An Anthropology of Biomedicine. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.