UCL Anthropology


MSc Medical Anthropology

About the Programme

This innovative course will provide a grounding in anthropological research at the intersections of clinical practice, primary care, global public health, and science and technology. With expertise in social, biological, medical anthropology and material culture, the department aims to incorporate and develop interdisciplinary and interdepartmental linkages in our programme while at the same time retaining the strength of core subject areas in the discipline of medical anthropology.

Combining cutting edge taught courses and guided independent research training in advanced medically and clinically-related applied anthropology and anthropological theory, the course uniquely attracts a wide cross-section of students. This includes social and biological anthropologists, physicians, heath workers, doctors in training and pre-medical students, creating rich opportunities for cross-disciplinary dialogue and practice-based learning in applying anthropological theory and methods to real world health challenges.

Programme Aims

  • To train people who already have a general social science background but who wish to start focusing seriously on health-related anthropology.
  • To prepare candidates who lack appropriate social science training to start a programme that leads to a PhD in the field of Medical Anthropology.
  • To equip medical professionals who need to employ anthropological techniques in, or formulate an anthropological dimension to, their work.
  • To train non-British students with medical or social science degrees who are interested in aspects of the discipline as distinctively developed within British Social Anthropology.

Core Courses

The Medical Anthropology core course in Term 1 provides a comprehensive overview of key concepts and approaches in the discipline,including interpretative and critical medicalanthropology, therapeutic interrelations between patient, healer and community, belief and efficacy in healing practice, global public health challenges and the role of health technologies in addressing risk and prevention across local and transnational arenas of health care.

In Term 2, a semtnar on ClinicalEthnography will cover methodological approaches to provide a hands-on approach to the practice of doing clinically-relevant ethnography.This will include discussions of the ethical dimensions of work with clinical populations, designing and setting up a project, using clinically-informed ethnographic techniques, and critical analysis of the inequalities and cultural ideologies shaping intervention and health outcome. Examples wiU iUustrate the range of clinically-relevant ethnographic approaches, exploring such topics as understanding patients' experiences of cancer or mental illness, clinical trials,bioethics, cultural competency, reflexivity, interviewing, narrative analysis,and constructing an anthropological understanding of local therapeutic approaches in sociopolitical context.



Core Courses

The core courses, running over two terms, provide a framework on which to construct an analysis of medicine and human well-being as practiced in any one system of healing: cosmopolitan, traditional, or plural.

  • Term 1: Medical Anthropology core course. Assessed by an essay on a topic of your choice and a formal written exam on the whole field of medical anthropology.
  • Term 2: Clinical Ethnography seminar. Assessed by a research proposal.

Each student is important to us and we arrange the course so that you can explore the topics that are of interest to you. For example, instead of providing essay topics on which to write, we discuss what topic within Medical Anthropology most excites you, and then support you in researching and developing this topic.  

Methods and Research

Anthropological Methods - The methods taught are both those developed in classical social anthropology (as used in extended fieldwork) and those more recently developed for shorter-term social survey work, along with computer-based analytical techniques. The Clinical Ethnography seminar in Term 2 provides a framework for thinking about and practically applying different methodological approaches to real-world health situations. In addition, weekly Research Seminars critically examine methods and research techniques particular to medical anthropology.

Optional Courses

You may take three optional courses, including courses that are both complementary to medical anthropology and/or those that provide theoretical and methodological approaches drawn from across the broad focus of the department including social, cultural, biological, and material anthropology. Assessment of optional modules is typically via essays, though some optional modules may use exams, projects, or other assessment methods. The marks for optional courses together are worth 25% of your final degree mark.

Options particularly relevant for the MSc Medical Anthropology include:

  • Anthropology of Science, Society and Biomedicine

This course critically engages with recent anthropological research and theory addressing the social and cultural context of novel developments in the field of genetics, biotechnology and the life/medical sciences.

  • Ritual Healing and Therapeutic Emplotment

This course covers ritual healing practices and "emplotment" in therapeutic narratives in small scale societies and in modern biomedical settings. It will include discussions of ritual, symbolism, narrative, clinical care, postcolonial revitalization movements, spirit possession, and the social production and ethnographic description of healing experiences in sociopolitical contexts.

  • Reproduction, Sex and Sexuality

This course applies different theoretical and disciplinary approaches (from medical anthropology, demography, biological anthropology, social anthropology, biomedical sciences, psychology etc.) to the study of contemporary issues in reproduction, sex and sexuality.

  • Anthropology of Ethics and Morality

This course critically engages with recent medical anthropological work by addressing the role of ethics and morality in anthropological practice and ethnographic endeavour, and examining the effects of a concern for well-being and the good life as the focus of ethnographic enquiry.

  • Anthropology and Psychiatry

This course examines (a) popular understandings of psychology, selfhood and abnormal experience in different societies; (b) the relationship between popular and professional notions of "mental illness" and their roots in the wider social, economic and ideological aspects of particular societies; (c) the contribution of academic psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis to social anthropology

  • Biosocial Anthropology, Health, and Environment

This course critically examines and engages with approaches, topics and themes related to Biosocial Medical Anthropology. Developing a cross disciplinary perspective it considers and addresses the importance, utility and challenges of productively aligning ecological, environmental and cultural-historical approaches in the context of disease, chronic illness, health and medicine.

  • Aspects of Applied Medical Anthropology

How can what we know as anthropologists be applied to saving lives, alleviating suffering, and promoting vitality? This class surveys some answers to this question from the perspectives of medical anthropology and sister disciplines such as social medicine and global health. We engage with key theoretical approaches including Critical Medical Anthropology, political ecology, and the social determinants of health. The goal of the class is to equip students to critically evaluate and apply anthropological ideas to current problems in medicine and global health.


A dissertation of 15,000 words (worth 50% of your final degree mark) tests your application of the medical-anthropological approach to an issue of your choice. The topic chosen usually arises either from a professional interest, or may be part of a research programme to be developed in a subsequent PhD. Once you decide on a topic for your dissertation, we assign a supervisor with expertise that matches the your interests who will support and guide the evolving project. These projects may involve data collection within the UK or in another country or they may be library-based.

Recent dissertation topics have included:

  • Religious Notions Related to Clinical Treatment: An Example of Burmese Buddhists in England
  • The Evil Eye: Dialectics of Change and Modernity
  • You Can Never Tell: A study of information control by African women living with HIV in London
  • Reflections on Hygiene and Sanitation: Rituals of Purity and Impurity in a Nepalese Brahman Household
  • Identity and Psychopathology in Black African-Caribbeans in London

Research seminars and activities

A weekly Medical Anthropology Research Seminar, open to all, runs through both terms, in which well-known researchers in the field of medical anthropology present their most recent findings. MSc students are required to attend and are expected to participate in the discussion.

In addition to one-off special events throughout the term, there are also Research Reading Groups in the department that offer students and staff an informal and productive alternative learning environment for generating new ideas and developing critical, engaged thinking.

Current relevant active RRG groups include

Current Research

Our research platform Subjectivities and Biosocialities of Health and Illness provides an overview of the wealth of research and collaborations currently taking place in the department under the aegis of the medical anthropology section.

Watch Joanna Cook talk about death and mindfulness (from 07:50)



Current Course Tutors:

Dr Joseph Calabrese is the Course Tutor, responsible for oversight of the programme design and management.  He delivers lectures and seminars in each of the teaching terms, along with other members of UCL's Medical Anthropology Section, who bring expertise in a diversity of topics and approaches within Medical Anthropology.  You can get a sense of this world-leading expertise from staff bio pages.  Joe is available to students throughout their course, including conversations by email or Skype, even if he is in the field during the summer break. He is also happy to discuss the course with prospective students via email. Students also learn from each other on the course, and we aim to recruit a diverse student cohort each year, representing a mix of social scientists and clinicians from diverse countries and backgrounds.

Joe Calabrese
Dr Calabrese's research in Medical Anthropology combines ethnographic and clinical frames of reference to develop a culturally inclusive understanding of health and illness, especially in the areas of mental health and understandings of "the normal," the use and abuse of psychoactive substances, and the connections between mental health systems and religious or ritual systems. Interests include Medical anthropology, cultural psychiatry, mind/self/personhood, clinical ethnography, severe mental illness, stigma, healing, ritual, postcolonial revitalisation movements, family life and comparative human development, Native North Americans, African Diaspora societies, Bhutan.

Jo Cook
Dr Joanna Cook has written and lectured on the Anthropology of Ethics, Asceticism, Religion, Buddhism, Fieldwork Methodology, the Gift, Gender, and Medical Anthropology. She has a long-standing research involvement with Thailand. Her earlier research focused on meditation as a monastic activity. Her monograph, Meditation in Modern Buddhism: Renunciation and Change in Thai Monastic Life, examines meditation in Thailand in detail and explores the subjective signification of monastic duties and ascetic practices focusing particularly on the motivation and experience of renouncers, the effect meditative practices have on individuals and community organization, and gender hierarchy within the context of the monastery. Dr. Cook's current research examines the introduction of meditation techniques into therapeutic practice in the UK focusing on questions of ethics, well-being and the dialogue between religion and therapy.

Sahra Gibbon
For the past ten years Dr Sahra's Gibbon's research has focused on examining the social and cultural dimensions of developments in the field of medicine described as 'breast cancer genetics'. Her doctoral research was based in the UK looking at the interface between gendered cultures of breast cancer activism and the translation of knowledge and technologies associated with two inherited susceptibility genes discovered in the 1990s - BRCA 1 and BRCA2. Since then she has continued  research in the area of BRCA genetics and breast cancer exploring the changing and dynamic relationship between 'publics' and 'scientists' in an era of (post)genomic medicine in the comparative cultural context of Cuba and more recently Brazil. Her most recent work is a collaborative project working with geneticists and social scientists in Brazil examining how the focus on rare genetic disease is being integrated into public health. Interests include genomic knowledge/technologies and public health in comparative cultural arenas (especially Latin America), gender, kinship, breast cancer and 'BRCA' genetics, biosocialities and communities of health activism and inter/ cross-disciplinary research practices.

Roland Littlewood
Medical and social anthropology of the Caribbean (Trinidad, Haiti), Albania and UK.

Dalia Iskander

Dr Dalia Iskander's research focusses on health behaviour and behaviour change. She is particularly interested in the use of participatory visual methodologies (photography, film and mapping) and understanding how these can be used to explore health as well as potentially facilitate communities to make changes in their lives. She is also interested in the health of young people and the role they play in promoting health in their communities. Dalia's PhD research focussed on malaria practices amongst the Palawan in the Philippines and evaluated the impact that a participatory photography project (photovoice) had on changing the practices of young, school-going children. She has done subsequent work assessing behavioural risk factors for zoonotic malaria infections in Malaysian Borneo and the impact of a business-led sugar levy on consumption behaviours in UK restaurants.

Aaron Parkhurst

My research focuses on the ways in which identity is constructed in the United Arab Emirates in the face of religion, rapid development, health systems, technology, and immigration. My PhD thesis, Genes and Djinn: Anxiety and Identity in Southeast Arabia, draws upon ethnographic data collected over three years in Dubai and Abu Dhabi to explore how foreign knowledge systems, specifically genetic models of inheritance, are incorporated into indigenous bodies of knowledge to reshape the ways in which local people see themselves in the world.My emerging research in Europe follows men and women as they develop new techniques in self-described cyborg technology to pursue novel ways to 'be' in the world and move through urban and social landscapes. I am interested in the agency of things with which we partner our bodies in efforts to enlarge the ontological limits of the self.

Caroline Ackley

Caroline's research explores intimate relationships in Hargeysa, Somaliland; specifically the ways in which individuals negotiate tension and conflict in various types of intimate relationships. The intimate relationships this research focuses on include the sentimental, the physical, the moral, and the divine. Interests include intimacy, love, relationships, the maternal and femininity, female circumcision, contraception, breast feeding, agency and power. anthropology of morality, anthropology of Islam, Somaliland/Somalia.

Medical Anthropology is a rapidly expanding interdisciplinary field and graduates of our programme have gone on to develop exciting careers in academia, clinical services, social services, government, and non-governmental organisations.


Our approach is broad and open-minded, encompassing analysis of a diversity of issues in clinical practice, critical medical anthropology, psychology/psychiatry, social impact of genetic technologies, demographics, ethics, and studies of traditional healing. Some of our recent graduates have gone on to secure jobs in academia, clinical services, social services, international aid, government, non-governmental organisations, and a variety of other domains.

Transferable Skills

The skills taught in the course relate to field techniques and approaches to the analysis of data with an emphasis on qualitative methods and analysis. On completion of the course the student will have a framework with which to construct and analyse medicine as practiced in any one society or community whether in the UK or a developing country, the ability to identify key problems and suggest solutions and an awareness of how lay responses and interpretations develop in matters of health and misfortune.

Student Destinations

Students who complete the MSc Medical Anthropology have a large number of career paths available to them, including:

  • working as a medical anthropologist academically within the discipline of anthropology or other social science or health science field;
  • working as an anthropologist in an applied health care setting in the UK or elsewhere particularly with NGOs and development agencies in developing country contexts;
  • for those who already work as a health professional and return to their careers following completion of the degree gaining specialist knowledge and research techniques often enables them to work more effectively in different or cultural settings and with diverse populations.