The story catches you and you fall down: tragedy, ethnography, and "cultural competence"

Med Anthropol Q. 2003 Jun;17(2):159-81. doi: 10.1525/maq.2003.17.2.159.


Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures (Noonday Press, 1997) is widely used in "cultural competence" efforts within U.S. medical school curricula. This article addresses the relationship between theory, narrative form, and teaching through a close critical reading of that book that is informed by theories of tragedy and ethnographies of medicine. I argue that The Spirit Catches You is so influential as ethnography because it is so moving as a story; it is so moving as a story because it works so well as tragedy; and it works so well as tragedy precisely because of the static, reified, essentialist understanding of "culture" from which it proceeds. If professional anthropologists wish our own best work to speak to "apparitions of culture" within medicine and other "cultures of no culture," I suggest that we must find compelling new narrative forms in which to convey more complex understandings of "culture."

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology, Cultural*
  • California
  • Clinical Competence
  • Cross-Cultural Comparison*
  • Dissent and Disputes*
  • Epilepsy / therapy
  • Ethics, Clinical*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Laos / ethnology
  • Medicine in Literature*
  • Medicine, Traditional
  • Personality
  • Professional-Family Relations
  • Treatment Refusal / legislation & jurisprudence