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Grandma vs The Doctor: Traditional and New Knowledge in Conflict

Talking to a group of parents in Tanzania, I heard about a parenting challenge I know all too well. Advice from medical professionals is often inconsistent with tradition, how we were raised and what we hear from our extended family members.

Photo of Jason Rissman
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Probably everywhere, parents of young children face the challenge of feeling pressure from their own parents to care for their kids in traditional ways. Even in locations where good research is readily available and the medical community is trusted, it's still often difficult for parents to adopt parenting practices unfamiliar to their older relatives. For communities where information is less acccessible and doctors might often be associated with untrusted outside influences, this negotiation can be even harder. 

How can parents more easily balance traditional and new knowledge in ways that help their children while not alienating other family members?

How can doctors and others with new knowledge better equip parents to adopt new practices by better recognizing their social context?


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Photo of Laura Schwecherl

This is great. As a once-student of Anthropology, I firmly believe that any type of development work done at a community level has to be implemented from an anthropological perspective. If doctors do not understand the community from a local lens, then their practice could become completely useless if it fails to be adopted.

Photo of Ursula

Hi Jason, great post. I think it might be harder for doctors to gain the trust of people living in isolated or very traditional communities if they aim to fully replace the community's traditions with new unknown treatments from the very beginning. Maybe, things would work better if the doctors analyzed the local traditions and identified useful elements that could be tied to the new knowledge. This approach might lower the communities' resistance to try something new as it would make them feel that their knowledge also has valuable elements that are recognized and respected. Another way might be to identify an influencer within the community that could act as a bridge between traditional and new knowledge. For example, in Peru, something like this is done with some isolated communities from the jungle area. Midwives from the communities are trained by doctors in the ways to identify signals that require a pregnant woman to be rushed to a hospital. In this way, women are starting to see doctors in a more friendly way and little by little are becoming more open to the idea of using their help in addition to the traditional care provided by the midwives.

Photo of Andrew Peterson

This problem is so relevant when we are trying to come up with solutions to our problem. Assimilating ideas into a culture is very challenging, and I think design thinking is the best way to combine our innovation with the cultural backdrop we are working in. It is important to remember where we are working, and to appreciate the community we are trying to help!

Photo of Meena Kadri

Great thought-starters, Jason. We'd also love it if you might join in on this related Global Conversations post: