Monday, May 9, 2011

Are science and medicine culturally relative?

I would like to consider two non-religious examples, medicine and science, to see whether it is possible to be ethnorelative (Bennett's term) but believe that something is true.

In Tunisia, there was what they called "Arab medicine," which is how they referred to traditional Tunisian medical concepts, meds, etc., and what they called "French medicine," by which they meant Western or modern medicine.

To be ethnocentric toward Tunisian "Arab medicine" might be to discount it (as stupid, false, irrelevant, superstitious, backward, etc.) without understanding it, not to see it in its broader cultural context, etc. - i.e., to judge it from an outside frame of reference (that which I as an American know to be "true" in regard to medicine).

To be ethnorelative would involve understanding Tunisian "Arab medicine" within its cultural context, which could include understanding something of the history (how and why certain concepts or practices arose), cultural connections (including religious and other belief systems), contexts in which someone would use "Arab medicine," and how they would use it, etc.

"French medicine" came into Tunisia from outside (as has been common with the spread of modern technology, scientific and medical knowledge, etc., in modern times - don't forget, though, that at one point the Muslim world represented the high point of medical, scientific and other knowledge in the world). It has fit in, and functions within the system, alongside the traditional "Arab medicine" (within the society, the culture).

You can "prove" the "truth" of much of modern medicine, e.g., that bacteria and viruses exists, the effects of antibiotics (or the lack of using them) and other meds on various conditions, etc. (note, however, that modern doctors don't know everything, can't always figure out either what is wrong or what to do about it, and meds don't always "work" - there's an awful lot of guesswork and experimenting to see what effect a certain treatment has).

Is it ethnocentric for someone who is non-Tunisian to believe in the truth of modern medicine, and to bring it into Tunisia ("we bring you true medical knowledge and medicine")? I would have to say, that depends on the person's attitude and their interaction with Tunisian society and culture. It would certainly be possible to enter Tunisia as an outsider, with your modern medical knowledge and meds, in a way that trampled on the local people, treated them as ignorant, ignored their culture, etc., and acting as if everything modern or western was superior, etc. (I have heard Tunisians complain of the way certain Westerners have lived in Tunisia, in how they viewed and treated Tunisian culture). If your goal was to have a positive impact on Tunisia, through bringing modern medicine, you might well fail, if you came in an ethnocentric way.

On the other hand, it would be possible, I would think, to believe in the "truth" of modern medicine, and to introduce it to Tunisia in a non-ethnocentric way - if you cared about the local culture (and sociocultural context), sought to understand local medical beliefs and practices (as well as the broader culture), learned to adapt to the culture and relate well to the people (to see the world from their perspective), etc. You might offer modern medicine not in a "we are the civilized people and you are the ignorant barbarians" way, but in a "we have something that we have discovered, that might be of use to you, and we'd be glad to share it with you if you're interested" way, and (as mentioned) with an understanding of how things actually work culturally in Tunisia. (Note that the history of aid and development is littered with projects which failed because of lack of cultural understanding.)

Being ethnorelative rather than ethnocentric in introducing something like medical practices that you believe to be true, to another culture, means seeking to share the knowledge, practices, etc., without your own cultural "baggage," allowing those you give the info and practices to, to adapt them to their own cultural context in their own way.

I think the same would apply with scientific knowledge or truth, in various areas of science.

The other thing I'll say, at this point, is that in medicine and science, as in the "softer" areas of life, human beings "see through a glass darkly" - e.g., throughout history we have been certain of scientific and medical "truth," only to have our knowledge challenged, undermined, and changed at a later point in history. This has been true in all areas of knowledge, all areas of "truth." And this is one of the reasons that when it comes to relating to people who have other knowledge and experience, we should not be too quick to judge either the inferiority of their "truth" or the superiority of ours (or who are the "civilized" and who are the "barbarians").

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