During recent years biomedical scientists, epidemiologists and other public health specialists have come to recognise the importance of an anthropological perspective within public health. As a result medical anthropologists have increasingly been employed within multidisciplinary teams on health projects across the globe, raising their colleagues’ awareness of the importance of cultural determinants of health and ill-health, and providing crucial insights into the ways in which people in different cultures and social groups explain the causes of illhealth, the types of treatment they believe in, and the types of people to whom they turn if they do get ill (Helman, 1999).
Anthropologists have also made a significant contribution to their colleagues’ understanding of macro-level determinants of health and ill-health (Myntti, 1991:229). Drawing from a wide body of theory produced by linguists, sociologists, political philosophers and economists, they have been able to elucidate the wider social roots of disease, highlighting areas such as violence, social stratification, marginalisation and poverty in the multifactoral aetiology of many diseases (Hegganhougen, 2000:1171).
While multidisciplinary approaches have recently become a key feature of many health projects and interventions, this integrative, holistic approach to understanding has always been an important element of anthropological study. Indeed, what distinguishes anthropology most clearly from all other disciplines, and what makes it such a crucial tool, is the method of participant observation it employs. In no other discipline do the researchers integrate themselves so thoroughly into the society under study. By taking the time to immerse themselves in local life – speaking with informants in the informants’ own language, eating with, and living alongside community members – anthropologists alone are able to explain in detail the true context of people’s lives.
Maasai Diet as Cultural Code