Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Anthropology in health research: from qualitative methods to multidisciplinarity

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: (Published 27 July 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:210
  1. Helen Lambert, senior lecturer in medical anthropology (,
  2. Christopher McKevitt, research fellow in social anthropologyb
  1. aDepartment of Social Medicine, Bristol University, Bristol BS8 2PY
  2. bDepartment of Public Health Sciences, King's College London, London SE1 3QD
  1. Correspondence to: H Lambert
  • Accepted 24 February 2002

As a response to concerns about the standard of qualitative research, attention has focused on the methods used. However, this may constrain the direction and content of qualitative studies andlegitimise substandard research. Helen Lambert and Christopher McKevitt explain why anthropology may be able to contribute useful insights to health research

Qualitative methods are now common in research into the social and cultural dimensions of ill health and health care. These methods derive from several social sciences, but the concepts and knowledge from some disciplinary traditions are underused. Here we describe the potential contribution of anthropology, which is based on the empirical comparison of particular societies. Anthropology has biological, social, and cultural branches, but when applied to health issues it most commonly relates to the social and cultural dimensions of health, ill health, and medicine.1

Summary points

Emphasis on methods in health related qualitative research obscures the value of substantiveknowledge and theoretical concepts based in some social sciences

Anthropology views the familiar afresh through focusing on classification and on understanding rationality in social and cultural context

It highlights the value of data gathered informally and the differences between what people say, think, and do

Its emphasis on empirical particularity helps to avoid inaccurate generalisations and their potentially problematic applications

Truly multidisciplinary research needs to incorporate the conceptual frameworks and knowledge bases of participating disciplines

What is wrong with qualitative research?

Explaining qualitative research to health professionals has been an essential step in gaining acceptance of these techniques.2 However, findings from such research have been deemed “thin,” “trite,” and “banal.”3 Concerns about standards and the need for particular types of evidence have led to quality control measures being recommended for qualitative health research (procedures such as multiple coding, purposive sampling, and software packages for text analysis). Imposing these measures, however, may constrain the direction and content of …

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