Medicine, Environment, Societies, Health
Principal Investigator(s):
Dr. Guy Attewell
Axis 1. of the Social Sciences Department /
Medicines, and more generally the means of which people avail to prevent, relieve or heal suffering and disease are formed, transformed and reformed in the field of health and beyond. The constitution of therapeutic spaces appears as the product of social, political and economic conditions and intra-actions, technological and material co-constitutions, of historical conjunctures, of mediations between people and representations, between pragmatic actions, ideologies and ideals.
MeSH is the successor programme to Societies and Medicines in South Asia.

The French Institute of Pondicherry (Unit 21 CNRS-MAEE) occupies a unique position in the study of medicine in India. Engaged since 1955 in historical and religious studies, the Institute holds a strong tradition of multidisciplinary works also involving ecology and the social sciences. This is particularly the case for research on health and healing in the subcontinent.

Jean Filliozat, who was the Chair in Indian languages and literatures at the Collège de France (1952-1978), founded the Institute in 1955, and was its first director. A renowned specialist of ayurveda, he trained as a medical doctor and a historian of science and religions (listen to a biographical account - in French). His La doctrine classique de la médecine indienne (1949, First English edition 1964) established his reputation in studies of medicine in India.

Specialists in the field have succeeded him. Francis Zimmermann, in Pondicherry from 1981 to 1984, is the most prominent among them, as his seminal works bear witness: La jungle et le fumet des viandes (1982 [English editions 1989, 1999] and Le discours des remèdes au pays des épices (1989).

Laurent Pordié was another key figure. He put emphasis on collaborative work and growing an international network of researchers, under the SMSA programme.

The programme underwent various development phases to reach its configuration today drawing on a transversal approach associating anthropology, history, geography, ecology and textual studies. In the last eight years the research activities have been structured around a range of topics, including: Health care governance, institutionalization, access, and the legal protection of indigenous knowledge; the commoditization of Indian medicines; clinical trials and the question of efficacy; the politics of knowledge production; the moral dimensions of healing.

Since 2010, Guy Attewell has been coordinating new directions of the Societies and Medicines in South Asia programme, through his participation in the development of research network in India on Medical Humanities, funded by the Wellcome Trust. The aim is to build capacity among researchers in India in studies, broadly of the human condition, from different disciplinary angles, and to put emphasis on public engagement.  Guy Attewell is Principal Investigator for the Wellcome funded research programme Margins/Thresholds.

Ongoing projects:
Completed projects:
  • PHARMASUD, « Savoirs locaux, construction de marchés et mondialisation : deux régimes d’innovation pharmaceutique au Sud » (Inde vs. Brésil), Agence Nationale de la Recherche, 2010-2013. Project leader : Dr. Laurent Pordié.
  • Making India a Global Healthcare Destination, Pôle d’Excellence « Asie et Europe » de l’université de Heidelberg, 2008-2011. Project leader : Dr. Laurent Pordié.
  • Health and the Lived Environment Asset Planning programme. Project leader: Dr. Guy Attewell
Main outputs:


Societies and Medicines in South Asia Newsletter:

  •     Issue 07 (2010)
  •     Issue 06 (2010)
  •     Issue 05 (2009)
  •     Issue 04 (2008)
  •     Issue 03 (2008)
  •     Issue 02 (2007)
  •     Issue 01 (2007)
  •     Issue 00 (2006)


  • Ayurvedic Manufacturing Industry in Kerala: Growth and Linkages of a Traditional Knowledge Sector

Harilal Madhavan, Published by VDM Verlag, 2010, 156 p.
Language: English, 60,48 €

This book explores the growth and prospects of Ayurvedic manufacturing in Kerala. This work unpacks the linkages between this industry, medicinal plants supply and health tourism, and their role in the state health development policy. Two manufacturing firms are explored in detail to understand whether this sector would be sustainable or not. This book provides the ground from which to examine the commercialization and transnationalisation of Ayurvedic medicine. It fills an important gap in the literature on healthcare in Kerala and offers an insightful economic argument to current anthropological debates.

  • Restoring Mental Health in India. Pluralistic Therapies and Concepts.

Edited by Brigitte Sébastia, Oxford University Press, 2009, viii, 318 p.
Language : English 795 Rs

Divided into three sections, the essays by experts in the field explore three kinds of remedies used to manage mental disorders ranging from severe illnesses to mental depression. The first section deals with codified Indian therapies, including siddha, ayurveda, and yoga; the second discusses the therapeutic role of religious places and figures, and the third focuses on psychiatry and psychoanalysis in India, both with historical and ethnographic materials.

An important consensus emerges through the diverse points of view expressed by the contributors. It says that any coherent approach to mental health in India must take into account the holistic environment. This includes religion, health policy, and the common understanding of mental illness and wellness.

Keywords: Siddha, Ayurveda, yoga, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, religious therapy, mental illness

  • Divins remèdes. Médecine et religion en Asie du Sud

Edited by Ines Zupanov and Caterina Guenzi, Paris, Editions de l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Collection Purusartha 27), 2008.
Language : French and English.

This volume explores different forms of interaction between medicine and religion as seen both in scholarly traditions and local practices of South Asia. The objective of this interdisciplinary work is to focus on the intricate and sometimes conflicting connections between medicines and cosmologies, healers and priests, remedies and rituals in different historical and regional contexts.

The studies composing the volume are based on a vast range of textual and ethnographic materials – including medical and tantric treatises, missionary archives, dreams or ex-voto narratives, possession cults, astrological counselling, and healing rituals. By considering the religious and cosmological aspects of medical theories and practices, as well as the therapeutic aspects of devotional and ritual practices, the authors show how the different forms of interactions between medicine and religion reflect the complex systems of relationships between social groups in South Asia.

Keywords : Medicine, religion, South Asia, scholarly traditions, local knowledge

  • Good Deaths, Bad Deaths. Anthropological Perspectives on Death and Dying. Special issue of Curare 31(2)

Edited by Gabriele Alex and Suzette Heald, 2008.
Language: English

The question of a ‘good’ death as opposed to a ‘bad’ one provides for a critical exploration and synthesis of changing attitudes to death cross-culturally. What can transform a bad death into a good one and what moral terrain does it serve to define? Mortuary rituals have long been an interest of anthropologists for the way they illuminate cultural values. This formal dimension of death in recent work has been over-ridden by a concern with the more subjective aspects of dying and the choices available to individuals. Two, opposed trajectories can here be seen to meet. On the one hand, there has been the development of new medical technologies with their promise of overcoming death. On the other hand, terrorism, on-going wars, third world poverty and the HIV/AIDS pandemic have ensured that, untimely death is not just a newspaper headline but an issue that reaches all. Suicide highlights attitudes towards death and the subjective choice of dying. It further illuminates cultural virtues which are expressed in responses to suicide, in the ways how people discuss and evaluate a suicide.

This volume covers three main themes. Firstly, the way in which the medicalisation of death in the developed world has produced new institutional ways of ‘managing’ death and a new lexicon to go with it. Secondly, the varied meanings and responses to suicide and self-killing are examined in different cultural contexts. Lastly, this issue turns to the responses to death when populations are faced by a pandemic such as AIDS.

Keywords: Medical anthropology, death and dying, HIV/AIDS, suicide, medicalisation

  • Tibetan Medicine in the Contemporary World. Global Politics of Medical Knowledge and Practice

Edited by Laurent Pordié, foreword by Margaret Lock, London and New York, Routledge, 2008.
Language : English.

Winner of the
ICAS Book Prize 2009

The logics of the neo-liberal economy, modern institutionalization, state-controlled policies, biomedicalization, and the renewed aspirations of the practitioners have brought about a dramatic change in medical provision on the national level and an unprecedented expansion on the international level. This volume offers a comprehensive reading of contemporary Tibetan medical knowledge and practices by considering both the reasons that have led to their diversity and by bringing out the common orientations of this medical system. The specialist authors brought together in this book examine the social, political and identity dynamics of various forms of ‘Tibetan medicine’ and post-modern medical pluralism, based upon multisided research conducted in Nepal, India, Tibet and Mainland China, in Mongolia and in the West. This collective reflection refreshes the contemporary understandings of scholarly Asian medicines in their global context.

Keywords : Tibetan medicine, modern institutionalisation, politics of knowledge, therapeutic globalization

  • Ethnographic Humanism: Migrant Experiences in the Quest for Well-Being, Special issue of Anthropology in Action 14(1&2)

Edited by Robin Oakley and Anne Sigfrid Grøsneth, Paris, Oxford and New York, Berghahn Publishers, 2007.
Language : English.

The articles in this volume reinforce the power of ethnographic humanism, of "anthropology in action". The focus is on the relationship between macro political forces and their influence on the varied experiences of health in advanced industrial capitalist contexts. Our approach views migrants as capable agents negotiating new lives for themselves and confronting the challenges they face. We strongly advocate socially informed policy that offers a minimum recognition to migrants as full fledged members of the new society that they have voluntarily or involuntarily migrated to. We are especially interested in health and well-being as analytical tools for understanding the contradictions and tensions immigrants face in regard to staying or leaving, as well as in feelings of identity and belonging. How do nation-state, market and capital interact in providing and/or denying access to social arenas that supply a minimum of social human recognition, which are critical to experiences of illness, well-being and joy? The contributions in this volume emphasise ethnographic practice as an important policy tool to understand meanings, experiences and practices of immigrants as they attempt to make themselves at home in Western settings.

Keywords: Migration, health, well-being

  • Les rondes de saint Antoine. Culte, affliction et possession en Inde du Sud

Brigitte Sébastia, Paris, Aux Lieux d’Etre, 2007.
Language : French. 30 Euros.

 The handling of psychogenic disorders and the « indigenisation » of catholic practices in Indian society are at the heart of this book. It presents the study of a sanctuary in South India dedicated to the Portuguese Saint, Anthony de Padua, who holds functions of divine      descent and the ability to exorcise. Pilgrims and Indian catholic patients meet there, and make devotional and ritualistic gestures inspired by Hinduism.

 These rituals are informal because, in this country, the clergy is opposed to exorcism practices. On the contrary, they are scrupulously observed by families who accompany patients suspected of being victims of possession. Relations have a central role in the therapeutic   process. They base themselves on different elements in order to demonstrate the supernatural origin of the ailments. The family then puts pressure on the patient and physically abuses him in order for him to subsequently manifest his possession, which thus proves the diagnostic correct. According to the nature of the ailments, the patient can submit to the relations’ will. This first experience often marks the beginning of a long series of possessions, more and more frequent and violent.

Keywords : Possession, sorcery, indigenisation of Christianism, psychiatry, Siddha medicine, India

  • Ethnography of Healing, Special issue of the Indian Anthropologist 37(1)

Edited by Laurent Pordié, New Delhi,
Journal of the Indian Anthropological Association, 2007.

Language: English. 1500 Rs

 The anthropology of health practices classically included in the category of “folk healing” is one of the neglected areas of the discipline in India. Social scientists do not give them the same attention as scholarly medical traditions. Usually located in villages “folk healers”  are, however, regularly frequented by the general population. This situation contrasts again very strongly with the national health policies that accord no or very little attention to these therapists.

 This special issue of the Indian Anthropologist is intended as a contribution to the definition and study of folk therapeutic practices. A series of articles of an essentially ethnographic nature explores their implication in the process of Indian modernity. Three themes bind the articles together: the social role of the healers and the social functions of healing processes, the presence of the religious and its normative dimension on the practice of medicine, and the importance of healing in group identity.

Keywords : Folk healing, illness, India, religion

  • Les médecines en parallèle

Edited by Olivier Schmitz, Paris: Karthala, 2006, 279 p.
Language: French. 25 €

 Despite the authority biomedicine displays for treating illnesses in contemporary western societies, a growing part of their population now have recourse to other therapeutic methods. What does this multitude of healthcare practices called « alternative », « parallel » or  even « natural», mean to the public and the practitioners? Are they, as has been said of the art of traditional healers, the missing part of biomedicine, which has, in its historical development, progressively separated the social from the biological, the material from the  spiritual? The chapters which make up this volume, provide answers to these queries, by offering singular and previously unpublished studies of a sample of « different » healing practices such as yoga, Qigong, geobiology, magnotherapy or shamanism. Social sciences  specialists subsequently point out to the remarkable plasticity in the field of healthcare practices, and offer some analysis. Les médecines en parallèle sheds light on these medical alternatives and on the profound social reorganizations of which they are the reflection.

 Keywords: Alternative medicines, trans-nationalisation of practices, social change

  • Soigner par l’invisible. Enquête sur les guérisseurs aujourd’hui

Olivier Schmitz, Paris: Imago, 2006
Language: French. 25 €

In spite of the success of biomedicine, there are many other healing practices living and developing today which are based upon the manipulation of certain “forces”, spirits, waves or energies. Who are the practitioners of these therapeutic forms and who are their clients? What are the representations of disease and of the body that animate these therapeutic practices? Over the course of a long period of field study, the author considered these therapies, which attribute the origins of the sickness and misfortune of individuals to the invisible world: cults based on saints and trees that heal, pilgrimages to springs and fountains, magicians, sorcerers, radiesthesists and geobiologists. The picture that emerges from this is one of a popular form of urban medicine, in which practitioners ground the legitimacy of their magico-religious discourse on disease and its causes on the advances of science and technology. Through participating in consultations, observing the stages of treatment and collecting experiences from the healers and their patients, the author has uncovered, at the very heart of our modern society, a magical universe in which our contemporaries attempt to find meaning and relief from their suffering.

Keywords: syncretic healers, West, magic

  • Panser le monde, penser les médecines. Traditions médicales et développement sanitaire.

Edited by Laurent Pordié, Paris, Karthala, 2005, 326 p.
Language: French. 25 €

 How do healing traditions transform health development? Vice versa, what role does healthcare development have in the dynamics of vernacular therapeutic practices and knowledge?
The essays gathered in this volume, provide answers to these twin questions, by inviting the reader to explore the social dimension of international health programmes. This book thereby examines the contexts, practices and the social impact of development, and the  ways in which medicines are manifested in it, categorised, taken care of, standardized or rendered invisible.
Health development programmes always concern healing traditions, in some way or another, directly or indirectly. This ineluctable encounter is, however, often ignored by healthcare planners. It has social and medical consequences that should yet be thoroughly taken  into account to make health development a more balanced practice. The reader will find in this volume essential analytical tools for that purpose. Combining contextualised accounts and anthropological analysis, Panser le monde, penser les médecines precisely insists on the necessity of understanding the world before trying to heal it.

Keywords: Health, healing traditions, medical pluralism, international development

  • Himalayan Medicinal and Aromatic Plants. Balancing Use and Conservation

Edited by Yildis Thomas et al., Kathmandu,

Language : English.

The rapid expansion of the commercial use of Himalayan medicinal and aromatic plants at the regional and international levels represents a threat to the Environment. Moreover, commercial practices generally do not consider the local social and cultural importance of  these resources. Increasing market and economic forces often leads to unsustainable commercial harvesting, to which an immediate alternative must be found so as to preserve the fragile Himalayan diversity. This book addresses these issues through exploring existing environment management possibilities and providing new approaches pertaining to plants domestication, cultivation and commercialisation. It also examines the use of plants use by various knowledge holders, such as traditional healers. This volume gathers papers issuing from social sciences researches and conservation programmes in Himalayan Nepal, India, Pakistan, and China. Sustainable extraction of resource and income generating system for the local community do not necessarily stand in opposition to each other; they must be thought carefully though, not to foster current environmental degradation.

Keywords : Trans-Himalayan medicinal plants, conservation, commercialisation, socioeconomic change, healers

  • Tibetan Medicine Among the Buddhist Dards of Ladakh

Stephan Kloos, Wien: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und
Buddhistische Studien Universität Wien, 2004, 188 p.

Language: English (limited edition, out of stock).

What is the social role of practitioners of Tibetan medicine (amchi) in rural Ladakh in the 21st century? What are the effects, on society and traditional medicine, of new roads, a changing economy, increasing political links to distant centers, and heavy militarization in the wake of a recent conflict with Pakistan? This book provides a case study of a remote village, Hanu Gongma, and its most influential amchi in recent times, to shed light on the establishment and change of Tibetan medicine in an Indo-Aryan minority community in Ladakh. The first section deals with the local history of Hanu and the introduction and practice of Tibetan medicine there since at least the 19th century. Tracing four generations of amchi, a detailed portrait of the present clinical situation and the role of Tibetan medicine in Hanu Gongma is given. This leads to an analysis of Hanu’s most important amchi’s unique role in mediating the socio-economic and medical changes in the village since the 1970s, and the ambivalent effects on both the health of the village, local Tibetan medicine, and himself. The author argues that at the heart of the successful practice of Tibetan medicine lies a dialectic relationship between social and medical power, which has to be renegotiated and re-established in the context of modernity.

Keywords: Tibetan medicine, social role of the healer, Ladakh

  • The expression of religion in Tibetan medicine. Ideal conceptions, contemporary practices and political use

Laurent Pordié, 2003, 83 p. (PPSS n°29)
Language: English. 150 Rs (5 €)

What place does religion today assume in the lives of the Ladakhi practitioners of Tibetan medicine (amchi)? And, how does medicine, as a social institution, negotiate its relationship to religion? The author addresses these questions by singling out two vantages of observation: institutionalization and the voluntary sector, after having defined the ideal religious frame putatively surrounding medicine according to the amchi’s representations. Contrasting the desire for scientificity that characterizes Tibetan medicine institutions and the political use of religion by healers’ associations, this volume sheds light on central aspects of the contemporary construction of Tibetan medicine in Ladakh.

 Keywords: Anthropology, Tibetan medicine, religion, science, development

Staff ( IFP & External )

ATTEWELL G., Researcher