Over the past three decades, sociologists have been drawn to analyse the increasing interest in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in countries erstwhile firmly entrenched in biomedical models of healthcare. Yet, relatively few theoretical models have adequately captured the relations between CAM and biomedicine that have emerged.
In this paper I develop a conceptual model for understanding contemporary medical pluralism; one that is centred in a reading of contemporary personhood and embodiment as dialectic between ‘agent’ and ‘object’. While CAM and biomedical practitioners may move along or disrupt this binary in practice, nevertheless, they often occupy quite distinct positions. In proposing an agent-object dialectical model to capture people’s engagement with CAM and biomedicine, I seek to encapsulate how, in certain ways, the ideological purity and reductionism that constructs and reinforces CAM and biomedicine as distinct, produces their incompleteness.
It is this partiality which, I suggest, is motivating people to increasingly move back and forth across healthcare traditions, a process that yields diverse forms of integration. I argue that the agent-object dialectic reflects a wider and perhaps irreconcilable tensions evident in modernity and its patterns of thought and affect. That is, a tussle between aspirations for individualism, and the articulation of agency, and of mastery, which is at once a quest for absolute effectiveness yet also enabling of devices of control and limitation. I argue that a person, rather than profession-centred, model of therapeutic pluralism is needed that captures these dialectical relationships rather than opposing positions.
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