alternative medicine

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alternative medicine

alternative medicine, the treatment and prevention of disease by techniques that are regarded by modern Western medicine as scientifically unproved or unorthodox. The term alternative medicine can encompass a wide range of therapies, including chiropractic, homeopathy, naturopathy, acupuncture, herbal medicine, meditation, biofeedback, massage therapy, and various “new age” therapies such as guided imagery and naturopathy. Although many alternative therapies have long been widely employed in the treatment of disease, the scientifically oriented modern medical establishment has typically been skeptical about, and sometimes strongly opposed to, their use. Despite this, Americans spend billions of dollars on alternative treatments each year. In 1993 the U.S. National Institutes of Health established the Office of Alternative Medicine to examine the merits of such techniques. See also holistic medicine.
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alternative medicine

therapeutic practices based on understandings of the human organism, the disease process and its treatment, which are different to those held by Western scientific medicine. Conceptualizing alternative medicine thus always implies some under standing of the principle features of orthodox 'S cientific’ treatment. These are usually held to be:
  1. a mechanical/materialistic understanding of the body and of disease;
  2. a doctrine of ‘specific etiology’, i.e. that all disease is caused by specific material pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, defective genes, etc;
  3. a vigorous interventionist therapeutic stance using surgery or chemical drugs to correct, oppose or reverse the disease process;
  4. patient passivity and compliance with the regimen dictated by an expert profession.

Proceeding in this way towards a ‘negative’ definition of alternative medicine, however, has its dangers as it suggests a unity within both fields which is in fact absent. If regular medicine is materialistic, therapeutically aggressive, etc. (and it sometimes, but not always, is), then it is too easy to assume that all alternative approaches subscribe to opposite principles: viz: a holistic understanding of the body and disease, involving an indissoluble unity of mind and body; a 'S ympathetic’ therapeutic stance, aimed at enhancing the body's own healing processes; a cooperative relationship between therapist and patient; and an active role for the patient in regaining health. While some systems of alternative medicine do exhibit these features (for example, homeopathy), others (such as chiropractic) do not.

Sociological work on alternative medicine is a recent development, and has tended to focus on four main areas:

  1. rather than accepting therapeutic principles at ‘face value’, interest has been shown in the social processes underlying the negotiation of the legitimacy of therapeutic principles, and of medical knowledge in general (thus the regular/alternative boundary is not fixed only by epistemological criteria, but is also historically fluid, and contingent on issues of professional power);
  2. issues of organization and professionalization;
  3. the resurgence of popular (and regular medical) interest in alternative medicine (involving a complex of reasons, all related in some way to a recognition of the damaging effects of science and technology – it is no accident that interest in green politics and green medicine have emerged more or less together);
  4. the increasing interaction between regular and alternative practitioners, and the incorporation of alternative therapy into regular practice (processes which have led to the use of the term ‘complementary therapy’ rather than ‘alternative therapy’).
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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