Metaphysicians: The Origins of Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States

Andrew Chalfoun, University of California, Los Angeles
Benjamin Kaplow, Yale University

The use of complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) has proliferated in the United States over the past half-century. Previous scholarship has explained this development as a reaction to patients’ alienation from mainstream medical settings, linking the growth of CAM to the crisis of medical professional authority beginning in the sixties and seventies: patients seek out alternative medicine because they perceive a lack of control over their own health. Alternative medicine centers the patient’s experience, it is argued, filling the gaps in mainstream medical practice. This account pays insufficient attention to the religious form of alternative medical approaches and its roots in American religiosity; nor does it adequately explain CAM practitioners’ continued appeals to scientific authority to legitimate their approaches. Using energy therapies—a set of interrelated practices emphasizing the significance of aligning the patients’ experience of their material and spiritual existence—as a case study, we trace its continuity with an older metaphysical tradition in American religious life. This tradition predates the consolidation of the medical profession, and cannot be characterized as simply an authority crisis. While the content of energy therapies is derived from metaphysical beliefs, practitioners rhetorically validate their methods by emphasizing the scientific status of their work. By reframing scientific truth as constituted out of personal experience, they seek to expand the boundaries of what constitutes a valid basis for medical care. Through this account, we not only provide a more empirically adequate characterization of CAM movements but also present a model of appeals to scientific legitimation that allows us to explain the mechanisms by which CAM practitioners validate their work.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 186. Religion in Social Movements