Folk Healing and Health Care Practices in Britain and Ireland: Stethoscopes, Wands and Crystals (review)
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Reviewed by
Ronnie Moore and Stuart McClean, eds. Folk Healing and Health Care Practices in Britain and Ireland: Stethoscopes, Wands and Crystals. Vol. 8 of Epistemologies of Healing. New York: Berghahn Books, 2010. 271 pp. $90.00 (978-1-84545-672-6).

This collection of essays is eighth in a medical anthropology series that considers contemporary and past alternatives to biomedicine in diverse geographical and cultural settings. Focusing on Ireland and Britain, the essays in this volume consider the practices and statuses of folk medicine, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), and biomedicine from diverse disciplinary perspectives, including anthropology, history, primary (medical) care, law, and interdisciplinary studies.

An ongoing challenge that runs through the essays is the definition of terms—as well as the values the writers and readers invest in those terms. Medicine, science, belief (religious or otherwise), practitioner, patient, healer, sufferer—these and many other words are defined and used in the absence of consensus, even within this collection, about what they mean. So, folk healing can be either the culturally embedded charming and wool measuring exercised by traditional healers in rural Northern Ireland and Wales, respectively, or the eclectic practices used by self-identified healers in contemporary Staffordshire. This lack of consensus is reflected in the phenomena and societies the volume addresses—and is, itself, of interest, considering expanding recourse to alternatives to biomedicine throughout the Western world.

The volume includes eight essays plus the substantial introduction and conclusion. The editors, Ronnie Moore and Stuart McClean, open the collection with both the stage-setting introduction and an essay, "Folk Healing and a Post-scientific World," which locates evolving folk practices in the contexts of changing religious beliefs, on the one hand, and professionalizing "orthodox" medicine, on the other. Then, historian Catherine Cox offers an overview of "The Medical Marketplace and Medical Tradition in Nineteenth-Century Ireland," which creates a broad image of the diverse healers (both formally and informally qualified) available to sufferers during that period. Susan Philpin's "Folk Healing in Rural Wales: The Use of Wool Measuring" explores a continuing traditional practice for diagnosing and treating a collection of traditional ailments that share characteristics of depression, heart disease, jaundice, and consumption. In "A General Practice, a Country Practice: The Cure, the Charm and Informal Healing in Northern Ireland," Ronnie Moore compares folks healing practices in two neighboring rural communities—one Protestant, one Catholic—where these practices survive in somewhat different forms. The next contribution, Ayo Wahlberg's "Rescuing Folk Remedies: Ethnoknowledge and the Reinvention of Indigenous Herbal Medicine in Britain," addresses the contradiction inherent in the "rediscovery" of British herbal remedies, on the one hand, and the risk to traditional herbalism of the laboratory testing, commodification, and licensing of those remedies. Stuart McLean's "Crystal and Spiritual Healing in Northern England: Folk-Inspired Systems of Medicine," considers the contemporary reinvention of practices based on nineteenth-century spiritualism. Turning the concept of [End Page 506] alternatives on its head, in the next essay Anne MacFarlane and Tomas de Bruin make the familiar strange by considering Irish biomedicine from the perspective of Croatian, Serbian, Russian, and Ukrainian asylum seekers in "Medical Pluralism in the Republic of Ireland: Biomedicines as Ethnomedicines." In "Born to It and Then Pushed Out of It: Folk Healing in the New Complementary and Alternative Medicine Marketplace," Geraldine Lee-Treweek discusses interviews conducted with four women who consider themselves traditional folk healers. Finally, Julie Stone addresses some of the complexities associated with both regulation and nonregulation of folk healing in "Beyond Legislation: Why Chicken Soup and Regulation Don't Mix." The volume closes with an "Epilogue: Toward Authentic Medicine," offered by the editors.

This volume is useful because it raises questions about contemporary changes in health culture. For example, it shines a light on an historical orthodoxy, to which I have contributed, that has viewed the years since World War II as the period when biomedicine became the dominant health culture of the West and traditional ways of thinking about and managing health events virtually disappeared. Not so, apparently. The collection documents both the increasing use and regulation of CAM and a continuation and/or reinvention of folk medicine.

The collection is...