Anorexia Nervosa

Karin Eli and Stanley Ulijaszek

in Anthropology

ISBN: 9780199766567
Published online August 2013 | | DOI:
Anorexia Nervosa

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  • Anthropology
  • Human Evolution
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  • Social and Cultural Anthropology


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With its multidimensional etiology, rich history, and increasingly complex epidemiology, anorexia nervosa has emerged as a biocultural disorder of significance for medical anthropology. Anthropological work on anorexia was first published in the 1980s, with these initial engagements examining the Western cultural context wherein anorexia was (predominantly) expressed. Over the decades, paradigm shifts in medical anthropology—from culture-bound syndromes and explanatory models of disease, to analyses of globalization and ethnographies of the body and self—transitioned the anthropological discussion of anorexia away from “culture” and toward the critical analysis of practice, experience, and subjectivity. But the anthropological narrative of anorexia is even richer, having been informed by more than a century of multidisciplinary work: a vast corpus that constitutes an unlikely gathering of disciplines, all searching for the key to anorexia’s causation and course. Since its clinical definition in the 1870s, anorexia—a disorder of ambiguous and complex causation, with striking psychological, social, physiological, and behavioral manifestations—has been subject to myriad interpretations. In fields ranging from biomedical (including genetic and neuro-) science, to the many schools of psychology, history, and feminist social theory, scholars have offered interpretations of and hypotheses about anorexia, each addressing a facet of the disorder. With historical analyses tracing anorexia through the Victorian era and toward medieval times, feminist analyses positioning anorexia as the embodiment of sociopolitical thought, and evolutionary and genetic analyses suggesting anorexia is the possible expression of adaptive traits, multidisciplinary work on anorexia has captured a complexity that is yet to be fully understood. It is this complexity, blurring the boundaries of body, society, history, and self, that makes anorexia so relevant for medical anthropology, its enduring ambiguities evoking the wholeness of the human experience that anthropological research seeks to explain. Given the nature of the anorexia literature on which anthropological research draws, this article does not highlight genres of publication: journals and textbooks dedicated to eating disorders tend to be exclusively clinical, emphasizing biomedical research and quantitative data analyses (rather than clinical case reports), such that they would not provide the most-salient references for anthropologists. The works featured in this article are divided, therefore, according to the analytic perspectives they express. Emphasis is placed on the history of thought on anorexia, while drawing out the salience of specific works for contemporary anthropological research.

Article.  9392 words. 

Subjects: Anthropology ; Human Evolution ; Medical Anthropology ; Physical Anthropology ; Social and Cultural Anthropology

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