Stanford University doctoral student Damien Droney, under the guidance of Dr. Tanya Luhrmann, will conduct research on the cultural variability of scientific practice. Droney will address the paucity of social science research on the role of science in contemporary African societies and other post-colonial contexts by conducting an ethnography of scientific herbal medicine in the West African nation of Ghana. Scientific herbal medicine, often referred to in Ghana as "neoherbalism," is a form of herbal medicine practice explicitly based on scientific research. This research is conducted at universities and research centers, but it is also done by herbal medicine practitioners without any such formal affiliation. This study therefore describes the features and cultural politics of scientific practice in a non-Western and non-institutional context.

Through surveys, participant-observation, and semi-structured interviews with herbal medicine students, researchers, and practitioners, this study will describe how different participants in neoherbalism define and practice science. By producing data from large research institutions as well as small herbal medicine clinics, this project will provide a description of scientific research specific to the culture and political economy of Ghanaian herbal medicine, thus furthering the anthropological understanding of science in its cultural context. Furthermore, as a study of the inclusion of locally manufactured herbal medicine in West African public health systems, this project will contribute to the growing anthropological literature on the role of pharmaceuticals in public health by examining the place of scientific research in medical provision.

Project Report

As a cultural anthropological study of science, this project analyzes the cultures and practices of herbal medicine research in Africa. In recent decades, Ghana has seen the emergence of a vibrant herbal medicine industry, a formal university training program, and a robust regulatory system for herbal products. This situation leads to contests over the science of herbal medicine, as well as makes Ghana a potentially significant model for the development of traditional medicine policy elsewhere on the continent. This project therefore asks, What does science look like when seen from the perspective of those practicing scientific herbal medicine in Ghana? To answer what science looks like from the perspective of Ghanaian herbal medicine researchers, the co-PI conducted 12 months of ethnographic research across three primary field sites in Ghana. After completing preliminary research, including 20 interviews, a survey, and four months of ethnographic observation with a university program in herbal medicine, the co-PI then completed the same internship that the students perform at a large herbal medicine research center in Ghana. He spent four months there working alongside herbal medicine research scientists and assisting with laboratory bench work. During this time he recorded research practices and observed social processes of the laboratories, and conducted interviews with the research personnel. Finally, the co-PI visited 14 private herbal medicine clinics and herbal medicine departments in government hospitals in Accra and Kumasi, completing internships at two clinics. He conducted a survey of patients at four clinics and conducted interviews with herbalists at each location. In total, the co-PI conducted over 50 interviews, completed five surveys, searched in four historical archives, and spent over 1,000 hours doing participant observation. The result is an ethnography of medical training sensitive to the diverse values and meanings that infuse scientific research into herbal medicine in Ghana, describing the human experience of science in a place not normally taken seriously as a center of scientific research. Intellectual Merit: This project advances knowledge about the culture and politics of science and traditional medicine in African and other postcolonial societies. By taking an intentionally regional approach to describing science as it is actually practiced in an unorthodox location, this study broadens understandings of science in the contemporary world. This study found that the science of herbal medicine in Ghana has the symbolic function of representing the status of modern Africa. Through ethnographic and historical research, this study suggests that scientific research may carry similar characteristics elsewhere in the formerly colonized world. Broader Impacts: This study also carries the potential for broader impacts on society. While many African countries have made some efforts to integrate traditional medicine practitioners into the formal medicine system, Ghana is the first African country to employ graduates of a university program in herbal medicine. Efforts are underway in Nigeria, Ethiopia, and South Africa to implement similar models. For this reason, the findings of this study are of potential significance for the development of traditional medicine policy in Africa.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Jeffrey Mantz
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Stanford University
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