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Various forms of applied social psychologyWays of Addressing Disease – A Medical Anthropological Perspective on the Treatment of Cancer Patients in South Korea

writer: SAWANO, Michiko (OIC Research Organization, Senior Researcher) published: 2017-2

The research area of medical anthropology

Medical anthropology is a research area that studies health, diseases, and physical phenomenon using the techniques of fieldwork and participant observation. Fieldwork involves research “in the field,” that is, in the place where phenomenon occur. Fieldwork involves spending long time to make rapport with people in the field and to conduct participant observation (making observations while participating in the field). Fieldworkers use their own senses and write ethnographies in which they meticulously record/describe details such as the colors and sounds, smells and tastes, humidity and temperature, social relationships, and fauna and flora in the field. In this point their work differs from qualitative studies conducted using only interviews.

Cancer in South Korean society

I have conducted fieldwork focusing on cancer patients in South Korea. The life styles of South Koreans have undergone changes along with the rapid urbanization and industrialization that has been occurred since the 1960s. Medical technology has also advanced during this period, and it has become possible to diagnose cancer in its early stages. In the past many people may have died without knowing there was cancer in their bodies, but today, using techniques such as diagnostic imaging, cancer can be diagnosed even if the patient is not aware of any symptoms, and the number of people diagnosed with cancer has greatly increased.
When it comes to treatment, while medical technology has developed, there are still many cancers for which no specific medicine has been developed that will completely cure them and prevent their recurrence. Many aspects of the mechanisms by which cancer emerges and progresses also remain unexplained. Cancer takes people’s lives, has been recognized as a threat to society, and has led to the development of national prevention campaigns.

Actions to treat cancer

Cancer exists all over the world, but ways of answering the question “why did I get cancer?” and approaches to dealing with this disease differ from culture to culture.
The treatment technologies employed at university hospitals in South Korea hardly differ from those used in Japan; doctors attempt to understand and treat cancer from the perspective of biomedicine (a field of medical science, created in modern Western society, which is based on biological knowledge of the human body). Most South Korean patients follow their doctors and undergo treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
At the same time, however, South Korean cancer patients also understand cancer as something that arises when someone deviates from the “correct” way, and attempt to treat cancer with their own ways.
For example, South Korean cancer patients may “improve” how they eat in order to cure their disease. Bread, sweets, pizza, and spaghetti are completely eliminated from their diet because they contain flour, sugar, and oil. On the other hand, buchimgae, a dish made using flour dissolved in water and then fried in oil, is permitted. In South Korea, buchimgae is thought as a “traditional” or “particularly Korean” food. Foods like pizza and spaghetti, however, are conversely seen as something brought from the outside as a result of modernization. The act of excluding these foods from their diet as food that is bad for their health can be seen as a negative reaction to changes in their food culture.
On this flipside of this approach, there are also patients who actively try to eat what are considered “traditional” Korean fermented foods, believing that foods like soy sauce, soy paste, and kimchi will be effective in combating their cancer. Although Western style bread is also made using fermentation, it is not included in the category of “fermented foods” that are thought of as being good for health.
This conception that links foods brought in from the outside to cancer can be seen as having arisen out of the view that changes in eating habits engendered by external influences are deviations from “the original correct ways.” The behavior of patients who reject foods that have come from the outside and actively choose foods considered to be “traditional” and “particularly Korean” can be as a return to how people think they were “the original correct ways.” The methods of treatment being practiced by South Korean cancer patients reflect both changes in how people live in Korean society and people’s reaction to social changes.
This is not a uniquely South Korean phenomena. In many places around the world, including Japan, certain diseases are interpreted through the lens of “why did I get this disease?” and various actions which based on such interpretations are undertaken. If we look at the diseases in our daily lives, we could find a fascinating world.


  • Sawano Michiko, 2016, ‘Living a “Correctness” without a “Right Answer”: Treatment Methods of Cancer Patients in South Korea’ in Shirakawa Chihiro, Ishimori Daichi and Kubo Tadayuki (ed), Anthropology and Polythetic Classification: Reconsidering Differences and Resemblances, Hukyosha, pp.223-244.
  • Sawano Michiko, 2017, The Medical Anthropology of Women and Their Families Living with Breast Cancer: Ethnography of Korean “Eomeoni”, Akashi Shoten.

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Institute of Ars Vivendi. Ritsumeikan Univ.