Cultural Initiation of Medical Doctors

Zoltán Zsinkó-Szabó, Imre Lazar


Eighteen years experience of teaching medical anthropology at a Hungarian medical school offers insight into the dynamics of interference between the rationalist epistemological tradition of biomedicine as one of the central paradigms of modernism and the cultural relativism of medical anthropology, which is considered to be one of the generators of post-modern thinking. Tracing back the informal "prehistory" of our Institute, we can reveal its psychosomatic, humanistic commitment and critical basis as having represented a kind of counterculture to the late technocrats of state-socialist Hungary’s health ideology. The historical change and socio–cultural transition in Hungary after 1989 was accompanied by changes in the medical system as well as in philosophy and in the structure of the teaching of social sciences. The developing pluralism in the medical system together with the pluralism of social ideologies allowed the substitution of the dogmatic Marxist-Leninist framework with the more pragmatic and empiricist medical sociology and medical anthropology. This process of social change is analyzed within an ecological framework. The conflict between the initiation function of the hard preclinical training of the first two years, and the reflective, relativistic and critical narrative on ’biomedicine as culture bound entity’ constructed by medical anthropology during the second year of medical training is discussed. The environment, and context of medical anthropology created by the teaching philosophy of theInstitute of Behavioral Sciences compared with other social science alternatives is explored. The debate on the emic-etic approach is revisited in the light of our teaching experience.  We also submit our fieldwork data gained as a result of a two year investigation period focusing on diverse initiation types of ‘would be’ physicians. The main proportion of our data derives from individual semi structured deep interviews together with focus group interviews carried out with medical students of upper years. Finally, the role of medical anthropology in the "rite of passage" of becoming a medical doctor is summarized, paying attention to the risks and gains in this process.


medical anthropology, Hungary, biomedicine, cultural initiation

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