Category: Belief and Worldview

[Cover ofHealing Logics: Culture and Medicine in Modern Health Belief Systems]

Healing Logics: Culture and Medicine in Modern Health Belief Systems

Edited by Erika Brady. 2001. Logan: Utah State University Press. vii + 286 pages. ISBN: 0874214106.


Reviewed by Jacqueline L. McGrath, College of DuPage

[Review length: 714 words • Review posted in 2003]


This collection of nine articles (with an introduction by Erika Brady and a bibliography compiled by Brady, Michael Owen Jones, Jacob Owen, and Cara Hoglund) covers various topics in folk medicine and belief from an ethnographic perspective, with attention paid to multiple regions and cultural groups within North America. In the introduction, Brady discusses her work in the early 1980s as a chaplain associate at a midsize hospital in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, describing the confluence of belief systems she encountered, ranging from vernacular health systems like herbal treatment derived from Ozark natural resources, to West African-based rootwork that flourishes in the nearby Mississippi delta. Brady points to an issue that is prominent throughout the book when she writes, “Most consistent of all, so deeply taken for granted that it escapes notice as a traditional health belief system, is the profound, almost universal assumption that soul and body are linked in some larger pattern of meaning that should be acknowledged, and can even be altered, by prayer” (3).

All of the authors who contribute to this collection explore the complex relationships between institutionalized, formal medicine and the diverse beliefs and practices on which medical consumers rely in order to negotiate both the medical industry and their own healing logics, or the “dynamic, emergent nature of nonconventional health belief systems” (12). The first piece by Bonnie B. O’Connor and David J. Hufford discusses the study of folk medicine as well as the practice of folk medicine in daily life by ordinary people (13). In the next article, Jones and Patrick A. Polk, with Ysamur Flores-Pena and Roberta J. Evanchuk, write about the crucial herbal preparations for medical and spiritual practices of urban and immigrant Latin American, Caribbean, and South American people in southern California (40). In Chapter 4, Richard Blaustein, Anthony Cavender, and Jackie Sluder describe the career of native folklorist and naturalistic healing practitioner Tillman Waggoner, and the article, which includes some interview excerpts as well, discusses Waggoner’s own theories of medicine and healing as well as his published book of home remedies, The Poor Man’s Medicine Bag (1984).

In Chapter 5, Shelley R. Adler writes about complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and discusses some of the concerns physicians express about the prevalence of CAM use by patients (117); Adler focuses on breast cancer treatment choices and the “logics of disclosure,” and the rate and the reasons why patients often do not disclose their alternative treatments to their physicians (121). Diane E. Goldstein discusses literature from medical researcher’s “uses of ethnography in the medical construction of AIDS risk categories” that Goldstein argues are often “heavily abstracted from social, historical, or cultural practice” by such researchers (such as blood brotherhood, ritual sacrifice, and traditional healing) (131), and while she acknowledges that such behaviors do occur and are potential causes of HIV infection, medical evidence “has been constructed to fit preexisting notions of the exoticism of traditional cultures” (137).

In Chapter 7, William M. Clements writes about “The New Age Sweat Lodge” and its popularity in contemporary alternative spirituality, as well as the political complications of its appropriation from Native American spiritual practices. Next, Frances M. Malpezzi writes about Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a woman composer and mystic who was a Benedictine anchoress in Disibodenberg, Germany; Malpezzi summarizes her biography and discusses the contemporary popularity of her writings as healing remedies and spiritual guidance in holistic health and ecological consciousness, especially among women (172). The collection closes with two articles that are case studies in teaching and researching folk medicine. Bonnie Glass Coffin writes about teaching students to interpret examples of shamanism and sorcery she collected during fieldwork in Trujillo, Peru (192). Finally, Barre Toelken describes his own recovery from pneumonia after the Yellowmans, who adopted him as a family member over forty years ago, hired a hataalii singer to treat him with a combination of a Red Antway healing ceremony and the administration of various herbal remedies that are based on hozho, a term that means a combination of beauty, stability, balance, and harmony (201). Toelken concludes fittingly that folklorists can “help to foster the idea that cultural diversity in thinking [and in medicine] is neither a virtuous political exercise nor a threat to science but a rich and underestimated source of insight for humankind” (207).

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.