A small sub-field within medical anthropology has focused on the social organization, power relations, and politics of health policy and systems. This scholarship takes policymakers and health staff—at various levels of the health system—as points of ethnographic entry. This requires a somewhat different epistemological orientation than anthropologists’ usual focus on recipient populations, one which works through the multiple individuals and bureaucracies that produce a culture—such as the culture of biomedicine. High-quality ethnographic work is perhaps the best way of understanding the complex systems that may impede progress in fighting disease or enable the promotion of good health.
There are moments in life when the stars align and you rush to go where the path leads. In 2016, we had the opportunity to help inform developing health policy and programs in California—and we took it. We created two ethnographic videos designed to be used by the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) to inform policymakers at the state and federal levels, senior program designers, legislators, and service organizations in California.