Cambodians and Their Doctors

A Medical Anthropology of Colonial and Post-Colonial Cambodia

Jan Ovesen and Ing-Britt Trankell

  • Published: 2010
  • Pages: 317 pp.
  • illustrated
  • Series: NIAS Monographs
  • Series number: 117
Available from NIAS Press worldwide
ISBN Hardback: 978 87 7694 057 7, £50.00 (June 2010)
ISBN Paperback: 978 87 7694 058 4, £25.00 ()
  • Offers a unique blend of historical anthropology and contemporary ethnography.
  • A key text for scholars and students of Cambodia and Southeast Asia in general.
  • An important resource for development planners and aid workers in medical and related fields.

At face value, this book is about medicine in Cambodia over the last hundred years. At the same time, however, by using ‘medicine’ (in the sense of ideas, practices and institutions relating to health and illness) as a prism through which to view colonial and post-colonial Cambodian society more generally, it offers an historical and contemporary anthropology of the nation of Cambodia.

Rich in ethnographic detail derived from both contemporary anthropological fieldwork and colonial archival material, the study is an account of the simultaneous presence in Cambodia of two medical traditions: the modern, biomedical one first introduced by the French colonial power at the turn of the twentieth century, and the indigenous Khmer health cosmology. In their reliance on one or the other of the two traditions, to a large extent the Khmer people have been concerned to find efficient medical treatment that also adheres to social norms (not least the emphasis on the morality of social relations). This concern is also evident in the prevailing medical pluralism in Cambodia today.

The authors trace the interaction (and lack thereof) between these two traditions from the French colonial period via the political upheavals of the 1970s through to the present day. The result is more than a medical anthropology; this is a key text that also makes a significant contribution to the anthropological study of Cambodian society at large and will be an important resource for development planners and aid workers in medical and related fields.

author image not supplied

Jan Ovesen and Ing-Britt Trankell are associate professors of anthropology at Uppsala University. They have been engaged in the study of Cambodian society since 1995.

Jan Ovesen and Ing-Britt Trankell are associate professors of anthropology at Uppsala University. They have been engaged in the study of Cambodian society since 1995.

In an interview filmed at NIAS in late 2009, they describe the tension in modern Cambodia between the Western medical tradition introduced by the French and the indigenous Khmer health cosmology. Here, they also refer to the effects on public health and welfare of decades of conflict and genocide as well as the impact of the neo-liberal economic policies rapidly implemented in recent times. Click here to view this interview.

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by Trude Jacobsen, Northern Illinois University
From journal:
South East Asia Research, Vol. 22, No. 4, December 2014

"It is refreshing, in a time when the disciplines are becoming ever more entrenched, to find a study that proudly extends its focus from the present into the past.

"It is refreshing, in a time when the disciplines are becoming ever more entrenched, to find a study that proudly extends its focus from the present into the past.

(…) the authors […] fearlessly delve into the colonial archive in search of the introduction of biomedicine into the Cambodian context so as to make sense of the ways that Western and indigenous medical traditions interact today.

(…) Cambodians and Their Doctors provides a comprehensive glossary of Khmer, Sanskrit, Pali, French and English words and acronyms used throughout the book.

(…) scholars interested in questions of medical modernity in the colonial context globally should find this a welcome addition. Scholars of Cambodia’s past and present should include this book in their collection due to the wealth of archival and ethnographic data presented here."

by Ayo Wahlberg, University of Copenhagen
From journal:
Social History of Medicine, Vol. 25, Issue nr. 4, October 2012

"The book, which provides readers with welcome and unprecedented insights into both the history and anthropology of medicine in Cambodia, raises methodological questions as much as it informs about how medical practice has been organised in Cambodia over the last century and a half.

"The book, which provides readers with welcome and unprecedented insights into both the history and anthropology of medicine in Cambodia, raises methodological questions as much as it informs about how medical practice has been organised in Cambodia over the last century and a half.

In choosing a longue durée approach to medicine in Cambodia, Ovesen and Trankell are both ambitious (perhaps daring) and innovative as they challenge us to rethink the ways in which ethnography and archival work can supplement each other as well as to reflect on the limitations of both methodologies."

by Didier Bertrand.
From journal:
Moussons, no. 19, 2012-1, 163-187

 "Outre les informations originales qu’elle apporte, cette compilation bien agencée, fertile mais sans prétentions théoriques, représente aussi un exercice réussi d’essai ethno-socio-historique de référence pour ceux qui s’intéressent à l’Asie du Sud-Est et une ressource intéressante pour les

 "Outre les informations originales qu’elle apporte, cette compilation bien agencée, fertile mais sans prétentions théoriques, représente aussi un exercice réussi d’essai ethno-socio-historique de référence pour ceux qui s’intéressent à l’Asie du Sud-Est et une ressource intéressante pour les planificateurs du développement et les organisations humanitaires intervenant dans les domaines médicaux et connexes."

by Vivek Neelakantan, University of Sydney
From journal:
Bijdragen 168/1, 2012

"Persuasively written and meticulously attentive to ethnographic detail, the authors trace the indigenisation of biomedicine in Cambodia through the lens of indigenous Khmer medical cosmology since the late nineteeth century.

"Persuasively written and meticulously attentive to ethnographic detail, the authors trace the indigenisation of biomedicine in Cambodia through the lens of indigenous Khmer medical cosmology since the late nineteeth century.

… the authors offer a nuanced reinterpretation of socialized medicine under the Khmer Rouge, drawing upon oral testimony to assess how modernization contributed to to deterioration of healthcare for those who had access to traditional medicines."

by Jenna Grant, University of Iowa
From journal:
Pacific Affairs, Vol. 84, No. 4, December 2011

"They perform an impressive synthesis of a range of material…  Cambodians and Their Doctors is an important contribution to studies of medicine in Cambodia."

"They perform an impressive synthesis of a range of material…  Cambodians and Their Doctors is an important contribution to studies of medicine in Cambodia."

by Peg LeVine
From journal:
Anthropos 106, 2011

"Overall the strength of this work is realised in the brave critique of these authors to ask hard questions about the on-going sociopolitical forces from outside Cambodia that are impacting the national health care reform system – and risking loss by the next generation to the complex system of indigenous Khmer cosmology and ancestral wellbeing."

"Overall the strength of this work is realised in the brave critique of these authors to ask hard questions about the on-going sociopolitical forces from outside Cambodia that are impacting the national health care reform system – and risking loss by the next generation to the complex system of indigenous Khmer cosmology and ancestral wellbeing."

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