History

The following was published in the final issue of Medische Antropologie; the text has been slightly edited and condensed. The full text can be found here. The last five years of articles and book reviews (in full text and PDF formats) can be found in our archive; PDFs from the entire journal’s history can be found here.

‘Medische Antropologie’, 1989–2012

Sjaak van der Geest, René Devisch, Eileen Moyer, Vinh-Kim Nguyen

Beginnings 

Medische Antropologie was a continuation of a simple newsletter that aimed to stimulate communication and discussion among researchers, teachers and health care professionals in Belgium and the Netherlands who took an interest in the social and cultural aspects of ill health and medicine. The first issue of that Newsletter appeared in December 1983 and provided a list of 64 people who believed that they were medical anthropologists in the broadest sense of the description in the previous sentence.

As a matter of fact, the journal started in June 1989, just two years after the Medical Anthropology Quarterly was founded by the American Anthropological Association and 12 years after Kleinman’s Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry was launched. In the first preface, the editors mention three objectives. The first was to stimulate communication not only among anthropologists, but also between anthropologists and colleagues in other disciplines such as medical doctors, psychologists, philosophers, and with health workers and health seekers. The second was to further the development of medical anthropology as a sub-discipline and a much needed complementary approach in multi-cultural settings of healthcare. ‘Development’ was defined in both a theoretical and applied sense. The third objective was to offer colleagues, and in particular recently graduated students, a forum for publication. The choice of the Dutch language was intended to facilitate this opportunity, although it was expressly mentioned that English and French contributions were also welcome. The general objective of the journal was formulated thusly:

Medische Antropologie biedt zich aan als een forum waar stemmen uit verschillende ‘culturen’ zich met elkaar kunnen vermengen. Wij hopen dat de uitwisseling en wederzijdse kritiek die op deze manier ontstaat tussen vreemd en vertrouwd, allochtoon en autochtoon, medisch en antropologisch, ‘zij’ en ‘wij’, zal leiden tot een decodering van medische en andere cultuurlijke vanzelfsprekendheden en bijdragen tot een verdere humanisering van gezondheidszorg (p. 3).

Medische Antropologie offers a forum where voices from different ‘cultures’ can interact and mix. We hope that the exchange and mutual criticism which will arise between strange and familiar, immigrant and native, medical and anthropological, ‘them’ and ‘us’, will lead to a decoding of what is taken for granted in medicine and culture in general and contribute to further humanization of health care (p. 3).

Striking in this objective is the emphasis on communication among various cultures. Although the term ‘culture’ also refers to academic disciplines, with their specific customs and beliefs about true and false, there is no doubt that there was an overwhelming focus on ‘other cultures’, in the conventional yet undefinable meaning of the term. Five of the seven contributions to the first issue were about African societies and the remaining two addressed cultural minorities in Belgium and the Netherlands. Interestingly, the emphasis on ‘other cultures’ has more or less remained throughout the 24 years of the journal’s existence. In the current—final—issue, for example, all contributions except two are about ‘foreign cultures’, abroad or within our own society.      

Another notable phrase in the mission statement is the explicit mention of a ‘further humanization of health care’ as an objective of medical anthropology. The editors have always felt a strong accountability toward society and pleaded for what is now called ‘valorisation’ of their academic work.

Collaborations and symposia

The journal has been an intermediary between medical anthropologists from Belgium, particularly Flanders, and the Netherlands. The Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, with a much longer tradition (1907) than the one at Leuven (1973), established an advanced graduate medical anthropology teaching program, a professorship , and a medical anthropological unit. Amsterdam also provided most of the editorial and technical support. We believe that the journal has helped to establish medical anthropology in the academic and public world of both countries.

Between 1980 and 1986, Devisch introduced medical anthropology to the research programme in multicultural Flanders that had been created by the Academic Unit for Family Medicine at the University of Antwerp. At the University of Amsterdam, Van der Geest, thanks to the help of a growing number of colleagues, was able to set up successful teaching and research projects that expanded into the present significant programme under the leadership of Anita Hardon. Medische Antropologie—and four book series in the field of medical anthropology—contributed to that achievement. The themes of the contributions to the journal largely reflected the research that took place in the Netherlands and Flanders: medicines, migrants, reproductive health, medical technology, medical aetiologies including divination, the body, children, ageing, and violence.

From the beginning, the journal had the tradition of holding annual symposia and each provided contributions for a special issue six months later. The symposia were nearly always small-scale and consisted of discussions instead of paper presentations. Participants were encouraged to submit works-in-progress to encourage others to provide comments. All participants were expected to have read the papers beforehand so that no time was lost on presentation. This format provided paper writers with their first empathic ‘peer reviewers’. The intimate and constructive character of the meetings made them unforgettable experiences of collegiality. 

Book reviews, peer review, and financial support

For many years, the journal had an impressive section of book reviews, in which both Dutch and international publications were discussed. Rob van Dijk was the book review editor responsible for this achievement. The main objective of the reviews was to inform a wider public about relevant publications related to health, culture and society. This was successful, since many professionals and students consulted the journal to keep abreast of new publications in their field of interest.

In 1998, Medische Antropologie began a process of peer review, and since 2005 the journal has been accessible via the Internet with a ‘moving wall’ of 2.5 years (http://tma.socsci.uva.nl/), thanks to the technical assistance of two retired ‘whiz kids’, Chris Aldenhuijsen and Janus Oomen, Sr.

After the journal’s launch (with the help of five supporting institutions), it became financially independent and managed to survive on the revenues of subscriptions and occasional advertisements. Twice it received support of the University of Amsterdam during periods of scarcity. The journal was never entrusted to a publisher, since it was believed that it could never be ‘commercially’ viable. Administration was kept in-house and students and colleagues at the University of Amsterdam helped twice a year by sending the journal to the subscribers. This informal and perhaps ‘amateurish’ system had its charms and created an atmosphere of commitment.

We want to thank all who contributed to the success of the journal in various ways: the approximately 350 authors and almost 1,000 book reviewers, the countless peer reviewers, the 21 editors and all those mentioned in this postface. (For the full list of editors and other staff who supported the journal throughout its history, please see the full text of this essay.)