From the Archive: Global Health, Biomedical Difference, and Medical Training

In our “From the Archive” series, we revisit articles from past issues of the journal. In this installment, we review Betsey Brada’s article “‘Not Here’: Making the Spaces and Subjects of ‘Global Health’ in Botswana,” from the June 2011 special issue on the theme of “Anthropologies of Clinical Training in the 21st Century.”


What do we mean when we employ the term “global health,” particularly about the nature of caregiving in other cultural contexts? In her ethnographic research at a training hospital in Botswana, Betsey Brada posits one theory of the term as engaged with by medical and pre-medical students, missionary doctors, resident medical staff, and other key clinicians at the field site. Brada finds that while global health is often narrowly defined as biomedicine performed in “resource poor” or “resource limited” regions, this definition in fact relies intensely on a complex, comparative understanding of place, technology, and biomedical skill.

For example, Brada describes one case where a German man on vacation in Botswana broke his leg and required surgery. Upon returning to his home country for a follow-up examination of his healing leg, the man’s physicians were surprised at the skill of the procedure, remarking that it was commendable given that it was performed abroad. The German physicians had therefore assumed that care in a “resource limited” context was correspondingly of a lower quality than biomedical care delivered in a developed country, even though clinicians often tout the “universality” of biomedicine as a cultural boundary-crossing (if not hegemonic) mode of scientific healing. The medical staff in Botswana remarked that many physicians in developed countries believed biomedicine in the developing world to be crude, simplistic, and backwards: even though staff members at the Botswana hospital had been trained at advanced facilities across the world, many of them in developed countries.

Students studying and volunteering at the hospital were also repeatedly instructed in lectures to understand the differences between pharmaceutical use in the United States versus medications available in Botswana. American physicians described an extensive list of common medication available in the hospital’s pharmacy in terms of how it was no longer used in the United States, but had to suffice “here.” This example, too, underscores the tangled relationships between space, technology, and an understanding of global biomedicine primarily in terms of nations offering cutting-edge care versus those countries that had, in their perspectives, fallen behind.

Brada also argues that medical anthropology and linguistic anthropology have much to contribute to one another, although the disciplines are not often engaged in scholarly conversation. She notes that the careful analysis of language used to distinguish “here” (Botswana) from the developed world, including the United States and Europe, demonstrates the division between spaces that is central to definitions of global health as given in biomedicine. Brada asserts that an understanding of “global health” only emerges whenever we attend to the terminology that physicians, staff, and students use to separate medicine in the developed world, from medical standards implemented on the global scale by the WHO, to the terms used to describe medical care in local, foreign contexts.

The June 2011 special issue features other fascinating articles that address the cultural situatedness of biomedical knowledge, and how medical concepts are translated to future clinical practitioners. To learn more about this issue, see the links below.

To find the article and abstract on our Spring site, click here:

For the full special issue, including links to other articles in the June 2011 installment, click here:

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