Valuing Health: Herbal Traditions, Pharmaceuticals, and Healing in Bangladesh

Date of Award

June 2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Susan S. Wadley


Bangladesh, Global Health, History of Medicine, Neoliberalism, Traditional Medicine

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


This dissertation examines the people and institutions involved in changing traditional medicine in Bangladesh. These transformations are connected to political, economic, and social negotiations of colonial pasts as well as new negotiations during the current era of neoliberal globalization. As the Bangladeshi state and its policies are transformed by neoliberal shifts, health care is increasingly decentralized and privatized, and citizens rely more on pharmaceuticals to treat and manage health.This commodification of health has a powerful role in changing the landscape of traditional medicine in Bangladesh, which includes the formal medical traditions of Unani and Ayurveda, but also new categories of herbal pharmaceuticals and indigenous self-treatment practices.

Using a multi-sited ethnographic research method, I traced the circulation of traditional medicine in and through multiple sites in Bangladesh. This multi-sited method allowed me to bring policy makers, company owners, practitioners and patients into the same research frame. I used this approach to understand the relationships between these actors and their different stakes in traditional medicine. The links between medicine, the market, and culture determine the value of health and medicine in its many forms. The Bangladeshi government is promoting the herbal pharmaceutical industry and the growth of herbal plantations to develop a more economically self-sufficient nation. This work shows how the state gives greater value to traditional medicine once the traditional medical industry is seen as a potential generator of national income. I argue that the intended meaning and material outcome of different categories of traditional medicine affect who produces which medicines and ultimately whom they treat. I explore the politics involved in the creation of categories of medicine: what medical practices are included and excluded, and who makes these decisions.

The industrial manufacture of traditional medicines has led to controversies about what is considered traditional medicine in Bangladesh, as traditional manufacturers compete with the surge of newly mass-produced herbal medicines in both local and global markets. Herbal pharmaceutical companies and traditional manufacturers have broadened their marketing strategies and often sell their medicines through medical representatives, allopathic doctors, or directly to patients. Meanwhile, schools, practitioners, and companies all struggle to legitimate traditional medical knowledge, whether in the name of science, naturalness, history and tradition, or as a way of healing. At the same time, I show how community health groups are reacting to the commercialization of health and the lack of access to government healthcare by organizing new forms of healing using indigenous knowledge of herbal plants or acupressure. In the process, these groups create their own conceptualizations of traditional medicine and the relationship between self-sufficiency, self-care, and health.


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