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Evans, S 2009, 'Challenge, tension and possibility: an exploration into contemporary western herbal medicine in Australia', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Copyright S Evans 2009


This thesis is about the contemporary challenges facing herbal medicine. Specifically it concerns the difficulties faced by Australian herbalists in their attempts to maintain authority over the knowledge base of their craft and a connection with traditional understandings of the uses of plant medicines, while at the same time engaging with biomedicine and the broader Australian healthcare system. It contributes to the study of the nascent field of qualitative studies in contemporary western herbal medicine by making three main arguments.

Firstly, Australian herbal medicine is characterised by its origins as a European colonial practice and its history of professional marginalisation during most of the 20th century. Secondly herbal practitioners have been unable to capitalise significantly on a surge of public popularity in the closing years of the 20th century which brought with it the interest of industry, the scrutiny of regulators and the renewed attention of biomedicine. Herbalists continue to struggle for recognition in the face of these more powerful interests. Thirdly it is argued that herbalists are attempting to gain legitimacy and acceptance as a healthcare profession through a process of underpinning their knowledge base with science, which is replacing their traditional philosophical basis. This has the effect of weakening the ability of herbalists to maintain their identity as an independent profession and makes its knowledge base vulnerable to appropriation by other healthcare professions.

Gross’ model of the cultural location of traditions in contemporary societies is used to clarify the situation of herbalists and to identify problems consequent to the political choices they have made or which have been forced upon them. Gross suggests that traditions which place themselves close to power have difficulty in maintaining their own character and integrity, but that other cultural locations are also problematic and limit full participation in society. vi It is argued that there are compelling reasons to move beyond Gross’ analysis and to find ways to strengthen the independence of the herbal profession. Given the financial problems facing the current healthcare system in Australia and the looming ecological challenges, radical changes to the current system are required. The central concepts of herbal practice, in particular vitalism and holism, lead to approaches to healthcare which are potentially both costeffective and ecologically sustainable. A robust and independent profession of western herbalists, with their philosophy articulated and restored, could provide a valuable and sustainable contribution to Australian healthcare.