Mauss and Alternative Medicine


At the risk of sounding hoaky, bohemian, or like somebody who religiously reads GOOP, I feel the need to talk about the importance of alternative medicine’s place in society. And through this medicine, we find the freedom provided by alternative healing as a source of magic. But while alternative healing has become increasingly popular among celebrities and laymen alike, do we know what it is? Is it magic? Medicine? Both? And does it even work?


If we look at magic through Mauss’ lense—that it is a manipulation of mana or life force—it almost sounds like a definition of alternative medicine. From chakras to chi, the idea of energy pervades this sphere. Mauss elaborates:

Take the following as an example… when a man is ill the sickness is explained by the fact that mana has him in its grasp. This mana belongs to a tindalo who is himself associated with a magician (manekisu — endowed with mana) who has the same mana or the mana to act on it… There are certain plant species attached to different kinds of tindalos which, through their mana, cause certain illnesses… they [the afflicted] can confidently call in the… mane kisu who possesses the mana of the tindalo, that is, the individual who is related to the spirit and who is alone empowered to remove the mana from the patient and bring about his cure. (135-6)

To break Mauss’ example down:

  1. Magicians are endowed with and can control mana
  2. Illness is caused when mana seizes a person
  3. A magician can cure an ill person if he is endowed with the same mana that has taken control of the patient. The magician frees their patient of the mana that dominates them.

Compare this with how holistic healers describe how they work:

The approach that is used to achieve alignment in holistic healing is purification – purification on all levels of being. A pure state of being means that energy flows freely through all systems without blockages or resistance. With time, we become more refined filters of energy, more sensitive to imbalances and more able to correct them at will. (

Like Mauss’ magical spiritual healer, a holistic practitioner removes the blockages and imbalances of energy to return their patient to a normal state, freeing them from their spiritual illness. From my experiences with alternative healing, I can talk best about acupuncture, which I use to help with chronic pain. When I see my L.Ac. (licensed acupuncturist), this is the typical order of operations:

  1. The patient and L.Ac. discuss spiritual, physical, and emotional wellbeing, and why the patient is seeking treatment. It is noteworthy that this always happens, regardless of whether it is a one-time visit or a regular treatment session.
  2. The L.Ac. checks the patient’s three-point pulse, which similar to taking a regular pulse, however, it is performed with the index, middle, and ring fingers of the L.Ac. positioned on their patient’s wrist. This monitors certain areas of the patient’s body and, depending on the rapidity, depth, and steadiness of the pulse, alerts the L.Ac. to how the patient’s qi is flowing. The L.Ac. will also examine the patient’s tongue, as it is believed that the colour of the tongue mirrors the state of the body.
  3. Based on the collected information, the L.Ac. will decide which pressure points to activate. While these are often near the afflicted areas, each point is highly nuanced and is believed to affect not only the immediate area but also other areas around the body. For example, here are the corresponding pressure points between the hands and the rest of the body:


Though everyone has varying experiences with acupuncture and alternative medicine in general, I along with others have found it effective at reducing pain and alleviating quality of life. Magic or medicine—to me it makes no difference. It just works.

“Alternative” medicine is thusly named because of the lack of scientific evidence that supports its efficacy. It involves techniques and fields that are not recognized as legitimate by the mainstream medical community. So why do people use alternative medicine anyway?


Mauss might argue that, like religion and magic, mainstream medicine and alternative medicine offer solutions to different human needs and wants. Traditional medicine, like religion, presents us with dogma and rules that we follow for our own sakes and the sake of the social good. Brush your teeth twice a day, eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, go for regular check ups and get all your shots. All these things are “for your own good,” and also for the good of society. If we all remain relatively healthy, society as a whole will function better. Furthermore, traditional medicine is profitable, and maintaining the public’s trust and compliance with what doctors say is critical for doctors and corporations to turn a profit. Finally, the belief that traditional medicine is the best medicine is an affirmation of the authority of society as a whole.

However, western medicine is not infallible. Many people have chronic or incurable diseases and disorders that western medicine cannot help. In some such cases, patients will turn to an alternative healer. Alternative healers can give hope to those who have been told that their cases are hopeless by their primary physicians. When people fear inevitable death, or unexplainable phenomena, they need somewhere to turn to for hope. Mauss states that magic is what people turn to for hope, and alternative medicine is a great example of modern day magic. When your life and health are uncertain and mainstream medicine cannot give you answers, you turn to alternative remedies for hope.


Another reason people turn to alternative medicine is for a sense of power and self-efficacy in an unpredictable and stressful world. While we have made many scientific advances, no doctor or scientist claims to truly understand how the body works. Many diseases how no discernable causes, many treatments no explanations for their efficacy, and many biological processes have yet to be explained. In this confusing world where anyone can fall ill at any time for no particular reason, whether they feel they deserve it or not, it is understandable to want some way to regain a sense of agency and power over one’s own health. Alternative medicine often provides this. Things like crystal healing and energy manipulation promise answers to people’s questions, and steps that can be taken to take control of one’s own body. For example, if you were diagnosed with cancer despite not having a family history or being exposed to excessive amounts of carcinogens in your life, it would be comforting to have an alternative medicine practitioner offer a reason for your illness (unbalanced energies.) An explanation, any explanation, is comforting when you are ill and scared for your health. Furthermore, alternative medicine offers steps one can take to regain control over your health. If you participate in this energy healing ritual once a week, your cancer will get better, and you can gain control over your life. As Mauss explains:

The world of magic is full of the expectations of successive generations, their tenacious illusions, their hopes in the form of magical formulas. Basically it is nothing more than this, but it is this which give it an objectivity far superior to that which it would have if it were nothing more than a tissue of false individual ideas, an aberrant and primitive science. (170)

Going by his definition here as well as our previous observations, alternative medicine and magic become indistinguishable. Although we remain dominated by the scientific knowledge today that this “alternative” medicine may, in fact, have no effect, at least some of us continue to believe in its perhaps prescribed magic, whether we call it that or not. This magic or alternative nature of the medicine gives us the freedom to try something unburdened by modern science, something that we hope just works because we’re told it does.


4 thoughts on “Mauss and Alternative Medicine

  1. I wonder if we can connect the powerful feeling some users experience while exploring alternative medicine to Foucault’s theory as well. Traditional Western medicine is governed by a very specific structure of power-knowledge in which the doctor’s opinions are presented to the patient as unquestionable fact, but the doctor’s knowledge comes from the university and the power-knowledge as work there. When a patient seeks out alternative practices, they are taking a stance against this structure of power that positions the doctor at the top. Also, based on the experience you described with your acupuncturist, the patient seems to have a more active role in alternative practices, assuming less of a submissive role.


  2. I actually have quite a bit of experience in the medical field. I am a licensed wilderness EMT which means that I can perform all of the ambulance emergency care in the urban setting and in the wilderness. In the wilderness, we do not have access to a lot of medical tools and many times we have to practice ‘alternative’ medicine to compensate for scarce materials. A lot of what this post described is what we are trained to do. Many ‘old wives tales’ and home-remedies have scientific evidence supporting them as well. Looking at the tongue is a great way to gauge hydration and fatigue. Feeling pulses on places that are not major arteries is a great way to gauge blood pressure. Massage that seem analogous to acupuncture lowers stress hormone that decreases strain on the heart, arteries, and the stomach. Pain management by massage and mental thought activities when you are transporting a patient with a broken leg miles and miles in the wilderness is crucial to mediate stress hormones, symptoms of shock, and hyperventilation. If it works, it works whether supported by science or anecdotes or tradition. All that matters is that the patient gets better. I have never got acupuncture done, but the techniques reminded me so much of my training. It is so interesting what society deems as valid and what it doesn’t. The training that I received is endorsed by the federal government and therefore deemed ‘correct’ while acupuncture is deemed as pseudoscience. The actual techniques are strikingly similar.


    1. I completely agree with your view of if it works it works. I think that this also connects to Levi-Strauss’ observation of the benefits of mythology in alternative medicine, the grounding of the self in relation to pain that takes place for the patient in stories like Muu’s Way. There is definitely something to be said about the patient finding agency within their own treatment and incorporating the patient into the healing process.


  3. While I understand that it seems like a good thing for people to be hopeful that they will recover even when a prognosis based on scientific medicine indicates they likely will not, and I don’t doubt that such hope can improve medical outcomes. However, there are many cases in which mistrust of scientific medicine or a preference for alternative medicine leads people away from proven, effective treatments and toward ineffective or even actively harmful “alternative” treatments. In such cases, it seems like we should be able to make a sound argument in favor of the scientific medicine. One possible argument is that even the type of psychological efficacy that Mauss and Levi-Strauss describe needs to be empirically verified in order to be believed in, i.e. we know that hope of being cured improves medical outcomes not because of anecdotal evidence or individual experiences, but because empirical studies of many individuals have been done on the subject. In other words, even though some alternative medicine may achieve psychological efficacy, we should not take this efficacy for granted.


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