Culture and Visiting the Doctor's Office
If you went off to a far away land (pick the place on the map with which you’re most unfamiliar!) and spent several months gathering data for an ethnographic study of that country’s culture, you would probably have no trouble spotting all the “strange” aspects of that culture.
You might notice peculiar foods, perhaps a strange—or at least foreign—language, the clothing might appear odd, and more than likely, if you were paying close attention you would see many ceremonies that you found perplexing. Anthropologists and sociologists are two kinds of social scientists who might embark upon such as expedition. (Bonus points: Would anthropologists and sociologists study the same cultures? How might their subject matter in this arena differ?)
Perhaps in one of your classes you have seen a film about a ”distant” culture and noticed some of the things I mentioned here. But have you ever turned that sense of wonder inward – to yourself and your culture?
It’s harder to see yourself than it is to see others, but have you ever played a game where you try to see your own culture through the eyes of someone unfamiliar with it? Have you ever thought about what would stand out about our lives to someone from a very different culture?
Most of the time, we are too close to our way of being to be able to see it objectively. For example, it’s easy to see in a documentary or in your field research that a witch doctor or medicine man performs with grand ceremony. Perhaps we learn that the medicine man must prepare by eating certain foods for a prescribed period of time. Maybe the medicine man performs his ceremony accompanied by ceremonial music and even has a carefully prepared and practiced dance as part of the ritual. We might note that once the ceremony begins, there are other symbols used. And we might wonder what each symbol represents. Imagine that all of this leads to a patient receiving medicine from the medicine man. Now think about whether there are any parallels between this description and your experiences of ceremony surrounding the dispensing of medicine in the U.S.
Do you see any parallels? Or are you thinking that there is no ceremony with the dispensation of medicine here? Do you presume that your doctor does consume special foods in preparation for seeing patients? More than likely your doctor does not dance into the room to see you to a specific song—in fact, I doubt that your physician dances in your room at all. So does this mean there is no ceremonial aspect of seeing a physician in the U.S.?
Have you read Horace Miner’s brilliant essay “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema”? If you haven’t, this would be a great time to do so, as continuing to read this piece could spoil it for you. Finished it? Good. Now, using the same element of detachment and observation that Miner exemplifies in that piece, think about your last visit to a doctor. More than likely, your first order of business upon visiting “the medicine man” was to offer your “substantial gift” or at least verify that some entity would provide that gift to the medicine man. After waiting, you were probably called into the back where the rest of the ceremony would take place. You are weighed; your height and then your vital signs are checked. And is there special music for this ceremony? Sure thing! Usually it’s elevator music, right? After you sit on the special ceremonial seat adorned with its distinct paper, the doctor finally comes in right?
Is there something magical about waiting for the doctor? Should we consider that part of the ceremony given that we often experience waits to see the doctor? Doesn’t the doctor have special ‘magical’ tools to aid in your examination? And at the end of the visit, as Miner describes it, the doctor uses a coded language to another specialist who will then grant you special “potions” which have healing properties.
What about the doctor’s clothing? Does your doctor wear ceremonial attire? No? Of course, she does. She wears a white coat. As you can see in the video (above) many physicians receive their first white coat once they begin to see patients, or even at the beginning of medical school in a white coat ceremony. (This is a ritual adopted by many other of the health professions.) And what is the white coat, if not a part of the ceremonial dress worn by medicine men/physicians?
If we are ethnocentric, it’s easy to think that going to a doctor in another culture would follow this format; if not we might think their medical practices inferior to ours. Because we are so familiar with our own culture, sometimes we hardly notice its existence. We might take for granted that things just happen to be that way. And that any other way is simply, wrong. But to an outsider, our ways may be as odd as theirs are to us.