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Anthropology and Disability

Disabled World: Revised/Updated: 2019/01/19

Synopsis: Information including recent discoveries, related anthropological news, and scholarly articles pertaining to anthropology and disability studies.

Main Document

A Broad Definition of Anthropology

Anthropology is defined as the study of various aspects of humans within past and present societies.

  • Linguistic anthropology studies how language affects social life.
  • Biological or physical anthropology studies the biological development of humans.
  • Social anthropology and cultural anthropology study the norms and values of societies.

In Great Britain and the Commonwealth countries, the British tradition of social anthropology tends to dominate. In the United States, anthropology has traditionally been divided into the four field approach:

  • Archaeology
  • Anthropological linguistics
  • Biological or physical anthropology
  • Social, cultural, or sociocultural anthropology

These fields frequently overlap, but tend to use different methodologies and techniques.

Sociocultural Anthropology:

The three famous pyramids located at Giza, Egypt: From left to right the pyramids are called; Menkaure, Khafre, and Khufu. The far pyramid is known today as the Great Pyramid.
The three famous pyramids located at Giza, Egypt: From left to right the pyramids are called; Menkaure, Khafre, and Khufu. The far pyramid is known today as the Great Pyramid.

Draws together the principle axes of cultural anthropology and social anthropology.

Cultural anthropology is the comparative study of the manifold ways in which people make sense of the world around them, while social anthropology is the study of the relationships among persons and groups.

Cultural Anthropology:

Related to philosophy, literature and the arts, while social anthropology is more related to sociology and history in that it helps develop understanding of social structures, (such as minorities, subgroups, dissidents, etc.).

These categories also overlap to a considerable degree.

Medical Anthropology:

An interdisciplinary field which studies "human health and disease, health care systems, and biocultural adaptation". Currently, research in medical anthropology is one of the main growth areas in the field of anthropology as a whole. It focuses on the following basic fields:

  • Patient-physician relationship.
  • Development of systems of medical knowledge and medical care.
  • Impact of biomedicine and biomedical technologies in non-Western settings.
  • Integration of alternative medical systems in culturally diverse environments.
  • Critical analysis of interaction between psychiatric services and migrant populations.
  • Interaction of social, environmental and biological factors which influence health and illness both in the individual and the community as a whole.

Other subjects that have become central to medical anthropology worldwide are violence and social suffering, as well as other issues that involve physical and psychological harm and suffering that are not a result of illness.

Anthropology and Disability

Any review of written or oral history, or archaeological skeletal population, large or small, allows us to identify many individuals for whom a physical or mental impairment played a significant role in daily life. People with disabilities make up a significant part of the human family. One estimate places the number of significantly disabled individuals with serious hearing, vision, mobility, or cognitive impairments, as high as one in every ten persons.

Scholarly Articles

Introduction: Anthropology in Disability Studies:

Devva Kasnitz, Ph.D., Mary Switzer Fellow, Russell P. Shuttleworth, Ph.D.; San Francisco State University.

Disability Worlds:

Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp; Department of Anthropology, New York University, New York, NY. Historically, anthropological studies of disability were often intellectually segregated, considered the province of those in medical and applied anthropology. We show the growing incorporation of disability in the discipline on its own terms by bringing in the social, activist, reflexive, experiential, narrative, and phenomenological dimensions of living with particular impairments. We imagine a broad future for critical anthropological studies of disability and argue that as a universal aspect of human life this topic should be foundational to the field.

Anthropological Theories of Disability:

Allison Ruby Reid-Cunningham; School of Social Welfare, University of California, Berkeley, California. The field of anthropology has contributed to knowledge about cultural relevance, cultural relativity, and defined the meanings of culture (Klotz, 2003). The concept of culture is important to anthropological study of disability because the lens of culture may be applied to disability in a variety of ways: Disability may be considered a culture, culture may be considered a disability, and cultural norms and values influence conceptions of disability (McDermott & Herve, 1995).



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