Holistic/Non-Western Medicine

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sun, 24 Jul 1994 07:08:34 JST

Barbara Campbell has made several interesting points about her project to
examine attempts to incorporate non-Western, aka holistic, elements into
Western medicine. Because the issue is, indeed, a very interesting and timely
one, I would lik
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one, I would like to address a few specific points in detail. First,
Campbell writes that,

Several people have raised questions that address what has been
troubling me about the academic tradition of extracting "tenets"
from a multitude of writings about X to summarize in an encyclopedia
like overview. The Medline references (at least 14 percent contain
rather lengthy abstracts of the articles themselves) are for those
of us in information science/sociology of science "units of analysis"
considered as "artifacts of scientific communication". They are
primary sources of materials unless classified as review articles."

I have no problem at all with using the Medline references as primary
sources about what their authors were thinking. I suggest, however, that
what their authors were thinking will turn out more often than not to
be thoughts about hearsay, since only rarely will the authors in question
have the the language skills and experience to rise above the most banal
sorts of observations. In my own case, for example, I have spent more than
ten years, off and on, studying Chinese and done fieldwork with a Taoist
healer in Taiwan. What do I know about Chinese medicine? A bit more than
the average laymen--not very much at all compared to folks who do serious
work in this area. My take on Ayurvedic medicine is limited largelyto
what I have learned from reading one book. What it tells me is that
like Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine is another humongous collection
of things with its own pharmacopia, noconcepts of astral and other influences, etc.

What then of the tenets that Campbell is extracting from her data. She writes,

"I'm trying to
extract those components that are not part of the biomedical tradition
but do seem to be commonly used in the Ayurvedic and Traditional
Chinese system and group them together."

When she does, she comes up with a list of things like,

"use of ritual, one-on-one attention to the
patient, reassurance that something is going to be done and is being
done - not we'll wait and see - some sort of focusing of the patient's
mind on his/her illness and personal Fate, some sort of cosmological
connecting of the patient (this varies but I hope you all know what

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#1 23-JUL-1994 23:20:49.14
I mean). There is also an answer to the "Why me?" which is definitely
not answered in the biomedical tradition."

Useful points, but mostly covered by E.E.Evans-Pritchard in _Witchcraft,
Oracle and Magic among the Azande_(which my feeble memory locates
somehwere in the 1930s) and reiterated by Jerome Frank in _Persuasion
and Healing_ (sometime in the '60s or '70s). Surely theremust be f
to be found from the labor of studying 22,000 sources than this.

As a possible point of departure, allow me to make the modest suggestion
that we look at what the
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Sorry 'bout the line noise. I'm suggesting that we look at what the all-too-
common commonsense about "holistic" approaches leaves out. In the Chinese
case we would then be forced to ask, for example, why acupuncture is in but
burning spirit money for ghosts is out, or why, in regimens intended to
prolong life, consuming ginseng is in, but consuming mercury is out. There
is a highly interesting boundary-making and gatekeeping issue here. The
result, I suggest, is a highly selective view of what "non-Western" medicine
is about that t
ells us more about what critics perceive as the flaws in
Western medicine than it does about the traditions from which only certain
elements have been appropriated.

There is nothing, I hasten to add, inherently perverse about this. That the
grass is greener on the Other's side has long been a stance for social critics
to adopt
. I dimly recall from a course in 18th century French literature taken
too long ago that this sort of thing was rampant during the enlightenment,
a favorite of pe
ople like Voltaire and Diderot. How people make the choices
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they do in reconstructing their own or others' traditions is a wonderfully
fascinating problem. Assuming that the reconstructions are faithful to the
original is altogether too naive.

Cheers, John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)