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Confronting “Culture” in Medicine's “Culture of No Culture”

Taylor, Janelle S. PhD

Special Theme: Cultural Competence: SPECIAL THEME ARTICLES

The author presents reflections from medical anthropology on the institutional culture of medicine and medical education, which sees itself as a “culture of no culture” and which systematically tends to foster static and essentialist conceptions of “culture” as applied to patients. Even though requirements designed to address cultural competence are increasingly incorporated into medical school curricula, medical students as a group may be forgiven for failing to take these very seriously as long as they perceive that they are quite distinct from the real competence that they need to acquire. To change this situation will require challenging the tendency to assume that “real” and “cultural” must be mutually exclusive terms. Physicians' medical knowledge is no less cultural for being real, just as patients' lived experiences and perspectives are no less real for being cultural. Whether this lesson can be effectively conveyed within existing curricular frameworks remains an open question. Cultural competence curricula will, perhaps, achieve their greatest success if and when they put themselves out of business—if and when, that is, medical competence itself is transformed to such a degree that it is no longer possible to imagine it as not also being “cultural.”

Dr. Taylor is assistant professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington. She also has adjunct appointments at that school in the Department of Women's Studies and the Institute for Public Health Genetics.

Part of this article overlaps with material in a longer article published this month in Medical Anthropology Quarterly.

Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. Taylor, Department of Anthropology, University of Washington, Box 353100, Seattle WA 98195-3100; telephone: (206) 543-4793; e-mail: 〈jstaylor@u.washington.edu〉. Reprints are not available.

The author thanks Rebecca Herzig, Karen-Sue Taussig, and Lorna Rhodes for helpful conversations and references. She is grateful to Elisa Sobo, Alex Costley, and Sayantani Dasgupta for sharing their as-yet-unpublished manuscripts. A small portion of this article reprises arguments included in a longer article that raises questions concerning cultural competence by way of a close reading of Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You.19

© 2003 Association of American Medical Colleges