The Enchantment of Western Herbal Medicine

Waddell, G. 2016. The Enchantment of Western Herbal Medicine. PhD thesis University of Westminster Life Sciences

TitleThe Enchantment of Western Herbal Medicine
TypePhD thesis
AuthorsWaddell, G.

In the UK the profession of Western Herbal Medicine(WHM) has had to engage with politics and with science in order to survive. Social science work on WHM suggests that traditional knowledge is being overtaken by biomedical knowledge, with one paradigm replacing another, although collaboration with science is also seen as possible. Throughout this work the voices of herbalists themselves have rarely been presented. Drawing from a biographic narrative approach to interviewing, along with supporting ethnographic methods, thirteen cases of individual herbalists are presented here. Eight out of the thirteen cases reveal ‘visible entryways’ to becoming herbalists - beginnings that are congruent with WHM as an increasingly professionalized practice. However, five of these eight cases reveal some sort of ‘enchantment’ with plants or herbal medicines as being important for their practices. Enchantment is characterized as a sensual affective energy and is situated among debates, initiated by Max Weber, on the place of enchantment and disenchantment in the modern world. The five remaining cases reveal ‘hidden entryways’, where there are sensual enchanted experiences of crossings between humans and plants on the road to becoming herbalists, often at a young age. Enchantment is also found later on in most of these narratives.

The thirteen cases suggest that, rather than a paradigmatic takeover of WHM by science, there is an enchantment of some herbalists by plants and medicines that includes both scientific and traditional approaches to practice. It is argued that the meeting and crossing of herbalists with plants and medicines allows herbalists to draw easily from a diverse range of influences that others may see as incommensurable. Herbs, rather than concepts and theories are, for the most part, at the centre of WHM.

The findings suggest that plants and herbal medicines may be seen as having more agency than has been previously considered. Drawing on a herbalist’s engagement with Ivan Illich it is asked whether herbs and herbalists may be seen as each other’s ‘convivial tools’.

Beyond WHM, in the plant sciences, the agency of plants is being investigated in the controversial field of plant behaviour and plant neurobiology where the possibility of plant intelligence is raised. Within the social sciences, posthumanism and ontological turns also address the agency of the non-human, where plant agency is beginning to be considered. It is asked whether the profession of WHM in the UK should engage with these developments in the plant and social sciences in order to establish additional networks of support.

KeywordsWestern Herbal Medicine; herbs; herbalists; enchantment; narrative; entryways; agency
FileGuy Waddell Thesis FINAL Enchantment of Western Herbal Medicine Jan 2016.pdf

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