Biomedicine views disease as having a unique physical cause within the body, whether it is a microorganism causing infection, the growth of malignant cells or the failure of an organ due to repeated insults (such as alcohol consumption). It has a well developed and widely applicable set of diagnostic criteria used to describe a large number of disease states.

It can be referred to as a kind of legitimized, credentialed medicine practiced and recognized throughout the world by governments and licensing bodies. Its history dates to Greek medical traditions and Roman times with a resurgence of its prevalence during the Renaissance. While it is often seen as a monolithic idea, there are different paths that it took to prominence in various countries. This has led to variations of the practice of biomedicine that are sometimes neglected [1] .

Clinical biomedical understandings of disease tend to privilege the body as the only relevant environment for the understanding of the disease causation and individuals are perceived as uniquely responsible for their health. Biomedicine tends to view itself as distinct from morality, aesthetics, religion, politics, economics, the arts and social organization, but as Hahn & Kleinman explain in their article about Biomedical Practice and Anthropological Theory-biomedicine is not simply a natural phenomenon but an artifact of human society, founded in a cultural framework of values, premises, and problematics, explicitly and implicitly taught by the communications of social interaction[2] . These connections are becoming more apparent as the field of medical anthropology grows.


It is argued that while terming all medicines that do not fall under the category of biomedicine as “alternative medicines”, that it reveals an implicit ethnocentric or “ethnomedicinocentric” bias as it gives biomedicine a privileged place. However it could be argued that biomedicine has earned this place by the success that it has had in combating disease and ill health and due to the fact that it or many elements of it have been adopted widely across cultures.

One way that contemporary biomedicine differs from traditional medical systems is that the latter often rely on supernatural causation of ill health rather than biological. Since the beginning of the 19th century biomedicine has embraced a specifically scientific approach to determining the biological causes of ill health.


An article explaining the difference between biomedicine and medical anthropology is found here in the Ethiopian Review.

A synthesis of this topic was written in the Lancet student notes by a medical student and an anthropology graduate student and found here . While not peer reviewed, this is a great site to look at to understand the importance of this topic.

A classic work on biomedicine is Byron Good’s book on Medicine, Rationality, and Experience

An article on this topic is Kleinman, Eisenburg, & Good's Culture, Illness and Care: Clinical Lessons from anthropologic and cross cultural research

Other articles to explore

  • Arthur Kleinman, 1978, "Concepts and a Model for the Comparison of Medical Systems" in Social Science and Medicine 12:85-93.
  • Scheper-Hughes, N. and Lock, M. (1987). The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1(1):6-41
  • Hahn, R. A and Kleinman, A.(1983). Biomedical Practice and Anthropological Theory: Frameworks and Directions. Annual Review Anthropology 12: 305-333.
  • This book looks like it could also be a useful recent statement on the topic: hl=en&lr=&id=myWDPdQFapQC&oi= fnd&pg=PR12&dq=anthropology+ biomedicine&ots=Od2kD-aReG& sig= XZssH0G6jMlwTbZGb71YkR4rWu8#v= onepage&q&f=false


  1. ^ Wiley, A.S. and Allen, J. S. (2008). Medical Anthropology: A Biocultural Approach. Oxford University Press.
  2. ^ Hahn, R. A and Kleinman, A.(1983). Biomedical Practice and Anthropological Theory: Frameworks and Directions. Annual Review Anthropology 12: 305-333.