SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Medical Anthropology: Bodies and Cultures

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 2

This module aims to deepen student understanding of key concepts in medical anthropology with a special focus on a) the materiality of bodies, substances, and practices, and b) science and technology studies that explore how knowledge comes into being, how it gains traction in the world, and how it shapes existing subjectivities and creates new ways of being and relating.

For the last thirty years the paradigm of the social sciences has been dominated by the idea of the social construction of categories, identities, facts and subjectivities. This paradigm, undergirded by Marxist and feminist critiques of the status quo, aimed to dislodge the idea of a natural order of the world. The material world thus became a surface in which human agency inscribed meaning through practices that shaped the world. Ironically, this approach, while liberating human agency, renders everything else in the world passive; in other words, it is still part of what Elizabeth Spelman calls “psychophilic somatophobia”, i.e. a preference for the mind/spirit/idea and an abhorrence of the material body. As a consequence, the intellectual movements of the 20th century suffer simultaneously from “the vertigo of constructivism” (Gumbrecht 2004: 6) and an “allergy of ‘the real’” (Coole and Frost 2010: 6), Lacanian or otherwise. More recent work on agency and matter has started to focus on the agency of substances and the often unanticipated effects that these have: blood, sperm, hormones, drugs (psychoactive or not) are no longer understood as just part of a cultural symbolic, but are facilitating kinship, create new forms of relatedness and community, and reshape both body and mind. At the same time new developments in medical technology such as transplantation medicine and IVF re-engage classical anthropological theories on in/alienability, commodification, embodiment, exchange and personhood. This fruitful conversation between cutting edge research and classical anthropology will structure the lectures.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

By the end of the course, students should be able to demonstrate:

  • Analyse how cultural and historical processes shape our understanding of bodies on an individual, social, political, and symbolic level.
  • Demonstrate a grasp of how bodies are regulated and normalised in social and scientific discourses.
  • Develop a critical understanding of the assumptions that we make in everyday life regarding gender, race, and the politics of health


One hour lecture and one hour seminar per week.

Scope and syllabus

Topics to be covered on the course:

  1. Introduction
  2. Commodifying the Body
  3. Biological Citizenship
  4. The Materiality of the Body I: Sexed and Gendered Bodies
  5. The Materiality of the Body II: Race
  6. Reading Week
  7. Technologies of Seeing: Personhood and the Medical Gaze
  8. The Substance of the Mind
  9. Pain/Suffering
  10. Global Epidemics
  11. The Anthropology of Sleep and Dreams

Suggested reading

  • Aizura, Aren. The Transgender Studies Reader 2: The Transgender Studies Reader 2. Edited by Susan Stryker. New York: Routledge, 2013.
  • Beauchamp, Toby. Going Stealth: Transgender Politics and U.S. Surveillance Practices. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.
  • Blum, Virginia L. Flesh Wounds: The Culture of Cosmetic Surgery. 1st edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
  • Taussig, Michael. Beauty and the Beast. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
  • Foucault, Michel. The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception. London; New York: Routledge, 1973.
  • Hamdy, Sherine F. Our Bodies Belong to God: Organ Transplants, Islam, and the Struggle for Human Dignity in Egypt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.
  • Lock, Margaret. Twice Dead: Organ Transplants and the Reinvention of Death. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules