Key Theories from Critical Medical Anthropology for Public Health Research. Part I: Starting with Foucault: cultures of medicine and meanings of illness


  • Jennifer J. Carroll University of Washington, United States


social anthropology, medical anthropology, social theory, qualitative research, public health, illness, explanatory models, structural violence, identity, biopower, Foucault.


This article summarizes four significant theoretical concepts from the field of Critical Medical Anthropology in two parts: in the first part, biopower/discipline and explanatory models; in the second, structural violence, and identity politics and biological citizenship. The four subjects reviewed here have been chosen for their importance to our understanding of human behaviors related to health and illness, as well as for the impact that they can have on theory, research, and practice in the field of public health. These critical theories can provide new ways of thinking about professional roles, medical decisions, disease diagnosis and etiology, treatment adherence, prevention messaging, and all sorts of health-related behaviors and systems of understanding. They can also help public health researchers shed light on the human beliefs and activities that shape patterns of disease within and across populations. Whether a research question is being formulated or research findings are being analyzed, the critical social theories outlined here can foster a more holistic understanding of the human element in any public health project.

Author Biography

Jennifer J. Carroll, University of Washington

Jennifer J. Carroll is a doctoral candidate in the joint PhD/MPH program at the University of Washington, earning her degrees in Anthropology and Epidemiology.


Becker, H. (1973 [1963]). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. New York: The Free Press.

Belsham, M. (1993). Cancer in the community: Class and medical authority. Washington D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Bourgois, P. (1995). In search of respect: Selling crack in el barrio. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bourgois, P. (2000). Disciplining addictions. Culture, medicine and psychiatry, 24, 165–195.

Bourgois, P. & Schonberg, J. (2009). Righteous dopefiend. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Campbell, N. D. & Shaw, S. J. (2008). Incitements to discourse: Illicit drugs, harm reduction, and the production of ethnographic subjects. Cultural anthropology, 23(4), 688-717.

Carr, S. E. (2010). Scripting addiction: The politics of therapeutic talk and American sobriety. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Carroll, J. (2011). Addiction, gender, and the limits of public health solutions to IV drug use in Ukraine. Research paper presented to the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington. Retrieved from

Chapman, R. & Berggren, J. (2005). Radical contextualization: Contributions to an anthropology of racial/ethnic health disparities. Health, 9(2), 145-167.

Erickson, B. (2007). Toxin or medicine?: Explanatory models of radon in Montana health mines. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 21(1), 1-21.

Farmer, P. (2004). An anthropology of structural violence. Current anthropology, 45(3), 305-325.

Fischer, B. & Poland, B. (1998). Exclusion, risk, and governance: Reflections on ‘community policing and ‘public health.’ Geoforum, 29, 187-197.

Foucault, M. (1975). The birth of the clinic: An archaeology of medical perception. New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. London: Penguin Books.

Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977. Colin Gordon, ed. New York: Random House.

Foucault, M. (1982). The subject and power. In H. Dreyfus & P. Rabinow, eds., Michel Foucault: Beyond structuralism and hermeneutics (pp. 208-226). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Garcia, A. (2010). The pastoral clinic: Addiction and dispossession along the Rio Grande. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kleinman, A. (1988). Illness narratives. Basic Books.

Lupton, D. (1995). The imperative of health: Public health and the regulated body. London: Sage.

Maher, L. (2002). Don’t leave us this way: Ethnography and injection drug use in the age of AIDS. International journal of drug policy, 13(4), 311-325.

Rhodes, L. (1996). Studying biomedicine as a cultural system. In C. F. Sargent and T. M. Johnson, eds., Medical anthropology: Contemporary theory and method, Revised ed. London: Praeger.

Sargent, C. F., & Johnson T. M, (1996). Medical anthropology: Contemporary theory and method. Revised edition. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Scheper-Hughes, N., & Lock, M. (1987). The mindful body: A prolegomenon to future work in medical anthropology. Medical anthropology quarterly 1, 6-41.

Singer, M. (1989). The coming age of critical medical anthropology. Social science and medicine, 28(11), 1193-1203.

Singer M., & Baer, H. (1995). Critical medical anthropology. Amityville NY: Baywood Publishing Co.

Spradley, J. (1970). You owe yourself a drunk: An ethnography of urban nomads. Boston: Little, Brown.






Literature review