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What Is Ethnopharmacy?

By Steven Symes
Updated Feb 10, 2024
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Ethnopharmacy is the study of how different medicines are viewed and put to use in a society. Although ethnopharmacy concentrates on traditional or folk medicines used in the society, it also looks at more modern pharmaceutical uses. Ethnopharmacists study the origin of pharmaceuticals, whether they are from naturally occurring or man-made elements, to determine how they have come to be accepted by a group as medically beneficial. They also study how pharmaceuticals are administered to people in the society and how effective the pharmaceuticals are at combating various medical conditions.

Students of ethnopharmacy must learn the dynamics of the society that they are studying to better understand how the society as a group views various pharmaceutical treatments. This means that ethnopharmacists study the general diet and medical practices of the group. Religious beliefs also are examined by ethnopharmacists, because those beliefs shape perceptions of different pharmaceuticals as well as how and by whom they are administered.

Most of ethnopharmacy focuses on the folk or traditional pharmaceutical remedies used by a society. These remedies normally pre-date the introduction of modern medicine to the group, and they often rely heavily on raw or minimally processed organic materials such as roots or leaves. Some ethnopharmacists look at how modern societies perceive and use high-tech pharmaceuticals that can be made of a combination of natural and man-made materials. How marketing campaigns surround the distribution or sale of modern pharmaceuticals is also studied by ethnopharmacists.

An ethnopharmacist also categorizes and studies the materials from which pharmaceuticals are made. This might involve identifying rare or regional plants, the presence of minerals found in materials used in the production of the pharmaceuticals or any other materials that are part of the final pharmaceutical product. Categorizing a pharmaceutical’s materials can help other pharmacists as they look for materials that are effective in combating certain medical conditions.

Not all pharmaceuticals are administered to people in a society in the same ways, and ethnopharmacy studies how and why. Some pharmaceuticals are administered in societies only orally, whether as part of a drink, food or in pill form. Other pharmaceuticals might be administered by burning and inhaling the substance or by applying it directly to the skin instead of ingesting it. Ethnopharmacists seek to understand whether certain benefits are derived from specific methods of administration.

Sociological theory is used by ethnopharmacists as they study how a society views the usefulness of various pharmaceuticals. This involves understanding how societal values and attitudes affect the perceived benefits versus risks or side effects of using a particular pharmaceutical to treat medical conditions. Ethnopharmacy not only measures perceptions, it also involves measuring the level of effectiveness of various pharmaceuticals. Measuring pharmaceuticals' effectiveness helps pharmacists as they strive to find combinations of materials that can effectively aid people who have various medical conditions.

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