Thick prescriptions: toward an interpretation of pharmaceutical sales practices

Med Anthropol Q. 2004 Sep;18(3):325-56. doi: 10.1525/maq.2004.18.3.325.


Anthropologists of medicine and science are increasingly studying all aspects of pharmaceutical industry practices--from research and development to the marketing of prescription drugs. This article ethnographically explores one particular stage in the life cycle of pharmaceuticals: sales and marketing. Drawing on a range of sources-investigative journalism, medical ethics, and autoethnography--the author examines the day-to-day activities of pharmaceutical salespersons, or drug reps, during the 1990s. He describes in detail the pharmaceutical gift cycle, a three-way exchange network between doctors, salespersons, and patients and how this process of exchange is currently in a state of involution. This gift economy exists to generate prescriptions (scripts) and can mask and/or perpetuate risks and side effects for patients. With implications of pharmaceutical industry practices impacting everything from the personal-psychological to the global political economy, medical anthropologists can play a lead role in the emerging scholarly discourse concerned with critical pharmaceutical studies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Drug Industry*
  • Drug Prescriptions / economics*
  • Drug Utilization*
  • Humans
  • Interprofessional Relations
  • Marketing / methods*
  • Persuasive Communication
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians'
  • United States