Thursday, 16 March 2017

Epistemic cultures in complementary medicine: knowledge-making in university departments of osteopathy and Chinese medicine

 2016 May 3;25(2):171-186. doi: 10.1080/14461242.2016.1171161. Epub 2016 Apr 18.


Author information

School of Humanities & Social Science, Faculty of Education and Arts, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW, Australia; Australian Research Centre in Complementary and Integrative Medicine, Faculty of Health, University of Technology Sydney, Ultimo, NSW, Australia.


There is increasing pressure on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) to follow the evidence-based approach promoted in allied health and medicine, in which the randomised control trial represents the evidence gold standard. However, many CAM advocates see these methods as undermining the holism of CAM practice. This paper explores how such tensions are managed in CAM university departments - settings in which particular forms of knowledge and evidence are given 'official' imprimatur by CAM educators and researchers. By comparing two types of CAM, the paper also unpacks differences within this broad category, asking whether CAM academic disciplines comprise different 'epistemic cultures' (Knorr-Cetina, K. (1999). Epistemic cultures: How the sciences make knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). Interviews were conducted with 20 lecturers in Chinese medicine and osteopathy, across five Australian universities, and augmented with observation in two degree programs. Findings reveal contrasting ontological and epistemological perspectives between the two academic fields. Chinese medicine lecturers had largely adopted bioscientific models of research, typically conducting laboratory work and trials, although teaching included traditional theories. Osteopathy academics were more critical of dominant approaches and were focused on reframing notions of evidence to account for experiences, with some advocating qualitative research. The study illustrates CAM's 'epistemic disunity' while also highlighting the particular challenges facing academic CAM.


Chinese medicine; Complementary and alternative medicine; epistemic cultures; knowledge; osteopathy; universities