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The role of evidence in alternative medicine: Contrasting biomedical and anthropological approaches

Social Science & Medicine 62 (2006) 2646–2657

The role of evidence in alternative medicine: Contrasting

biomedical and anthropological approaches

Christine Ann Barry

School of Social Sciences and Law, Brunel University, Gaskell Room 163, Uxbridge, Middlesex UB8 3PH, UK

Available online 22 December 2005


The growth of alternative medicine and its insurgence into the realms of the biomedical system raises a number of

questions about the nature of evidence. Calls for ‘gold standard’ randomised controlled trial evidence, by both biomedical

and political establishments, to legitimise the integration of alternative medicine into healthcare systems, can be interpreted

as deeply political. In this paper, the supposed objectivity of scientific, biomedical forms of evidence is questioned through

an illumination of the multiple rhetorics embedded in the evidence-based medicine phenomenon, both within biomedicine

itself and in calls for its use to evaluate alternative therapeutic systems. Anthropological notions of evidence are

constructed very differently from those of biomedical science, and offer a closer resonance with the philosophy of

alternative medicine. Examples are given of the kinds of evidence produced by anthropologists researching alternative

medicine. Ethnographic evidence of ‘what works’ in alternative medicine includes concepts such as transcendent,

transformational experiences; changing lived-body experience; and the gaining of meaning. It is proposed that the

promotion of differently constructed modes of evidence can be used to legitimise alternative medicine by widening

the definition of what works in therapy, and offering a critique of what people feel is lacking from much of orthodox

medical care.

2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


UK; Evidence-based medicine; Anthropology; Alternative and complementary medicine

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