“The Anthropology of Health Systems: A History and Review”

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Ethnographies of health systems are a theoretically rich and rapidly growing area within medical anthropology. Critical ethnographic work dating back to the 1950s has taken policymakers and health staff as points of entry into the power structures that run through the global health enterprise. In the last decade, there has been a surge of ethnographic work on health systems. In this article, Emily Mendenhall and her co-authors conceptualize the anthropology of health systems as a field; review the history of this body of knowledge; and outline emergent literatures on policymaking, HIV, hospitals, Community Health Workers, health markets, pharmaceuticals, and metrics. They describe high-quality ethnographic work as an excellent way to understand the complex systems that shape health outcomes, which provides a critical vantage point for thinking about global health policy and systems. As theory in this space develops and deepens, they argue that anthropologists should look beyond the discipline to think through what their work does and why it matters.

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