Dr. Zahir’s dilemma: money and morals in India’s private medical networks


Public health experts often describe care in India’s private sector as ‘chaotic,’ ‘substandard,’ ‘profit-driven,’ and ‘arbitrary.’ Discourse tends to focus on the ‘predatory behavior’ of doctors who demand consultation fees and kickbacks for everything from medicine, to laboratory tests, to specialist referrals, and even hospital stays. These practices are ethnographically observable. However, this discourse does not take into account the multiple uncertainties, ethical complexity, and personal relationships involved in providing care in exchange for money in a setting of scarce personal and public resources. Situated at the very end of a value chain designed to make money from health, or the lack thereof, private physicians find themselves embroiled in moral peril. In this article, I engage what it means to make a livelihood in a context such as this by considering the economic, moral, and epistemic practices that physicians and their patients use to create and evaluate the value of pharmaceuticals in Mumbai’s slums. Based on over a year of clinic ethnography and interviews with family physicians, specialists, pharmacists, and pharmaceutical wholesalers, I trace how physicians manage the effects of a pharmaceutical value chain that produces profit by fulfilling patient’s health needs and desires.


McDowell, A. (2021). Dr. Zahir’s dilemma: money and morals in India’s private medical networks. BioSocieties, 1-24.
Geographies India

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