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Cultures of Healing


Hannawa A. F.

Course director

Rizzieri M. F.



What does it mean to be “healthy” and to “heal” in different cultures? What medical, ritual, or religious expertise authorizes different kinds of “healers” and forms of healing? What conceptions of the human body and its capabilities are assumed by these different traditions? These important questions probe the problematic entanglement of culturally diverse approaches to health and medicine that currently challenge us with global health matters, particularly in the context of rapidly advancing globalization. Throughout history, cultures and societies have developed concepts about healers, healing processes, diagnosis, treatments and healing practices. In this process, definitions of “disease” and responses to illness have been influenced by diverse social dynamics, collective expectations and cultural values. Taking a global approach, this course illuminates these cultural conceptions of “human health”, “disease” and “curing” from an evolutionary perspective. It explores medical systems, healers and healing approaches from all over the world. In this context, students will actively explore how health, illness, and healing are conceptualized and experienced by these different cultures. They will learn about differences and similarities in the ways that humans approach illness and healing by relying heavily on examples from these cultural origins. Students will also understand the cultural role of “healers” in these diverse traditions, such as physicians, shamans, witch doctors, curanderos/as, midwives, wise men and women, as well as their uses of medicinal herbs, music, healing aids, and pharmaceuticals in the healing process. Informed self-reflection and critical analysis of one's own worldview assumptions and medical belief systems are fundamental for this course.


In this course, students will…

  • engage in critical thinking regarding the relationship between healthcare and culture
  • learn different ways of “knowing” and “doing” when it comes to health and illness
  • understand the role of the “healer” in diverse cultural medical systems
  • compare “patient-provider” relationships in these culturally diverse health systems
  • learn about the traditional relationship between medicine and religion
  • employ a holistic perspective when attempting to understand human phenomena, including health care and medical treatment.

Teaching mode

In presence

Learning methods

Main topics:

Cultural conceptions of “health” and “disease” • Cultural healing systems • Symbolic healing • Ethnomedicine and medical pluralism • Healers and the healing profession • Shamanism, ethnobotany and indigenous knowledge • Culturally variant placebo and nocebo effects • Social constructions of illness • Ecologies of health and suffering • Biomedicine as culture • Medicalization, pharmaceuticalization and disease mongering • The integration of Western and traditional medicine • Global health as a challenge of cross-cultural sense-making.

Assigned Reading: 

Students will receive the readings for this course digitally on icorsi.

Examination information

Final project (70% of final grade), Course Journal (30% of final grade).

The success of this course greatly depends on student participation. Therefore, this course requires in-person attendance. Only students who have attended at least 80% of the classroom sessions will be admitted to the final project/exam. Additional missed classes (>20%) are only excused for severe, officially attested reasons (e.g., a medical certificate testifying that a student was unable to come to class).