Soc Sci Med. 2006 (Jun); 62 (11): 2646–2657
School of Social Sciences and Law,
Gaskell Room 163,
Uxbridge, Middlesex UB8 3PH, UK
The growth of alternative medicine and its insurgence into the realms of the biomedical system raises a number of questions about the nature of evidence. Calls for 'gold standard' randomised controlled trial evidence, by both biomedical and political establishments, to legitimise the integration of alternative medicine into healthcare systems, can be interpreted as deeply political. In this paper, the supposed objectivity of scientific, biomedical forms of evidence is questioned through an illumination of the multiple rhetorics embedded in the evidence-based medicine phenomenon, both within biomedicine itself and in calls for its use to evaluate alternative therapeutic systems. Anthropological notions of evidence are constructed very differently from those of biomedical science, and offer a closer resonance with the philosophy of alternative medicine. Examples are given of the kinds of evidence produced by anthropologists researching alternative medicine. Ethnographic evidence of 'what works' in alternative medicine includes concepts such as transcendent, transformational experiences; changing lived-body experience; and the gaining of meaning. It is proposed that the promotion of differently constructed modes of evidence can be used to legitimise alternative medicine by widening the definition of what works in therapy, and offering a critique of what people feel is lacking from much of orthodox medical care.