Psychoanalysis and Anthropology

Waud H. Kracke

Anthropology and psychoanalysis have much in common. The ability to listen, for example, is crucial to both disciplines. The approach psychoanalysis takes to mental illness is to listen to the patient and try to understand the structure of his symptoms and the origin of these symptoms in repressed or disavowed desires. The analyst supports the patient's quest to understand the reason these desires were disavowed, in conflicts between the desires and the person's values in the context of a set of assumptions about life that grew up as a response to childhood experiences. Anthropology is likewise based on listening—listening to a person ("informant" or "collaborator") and trying to understand the structure of this person's system of symbols, including the value system and the root assumptions about reality. Despite obvious differences—the psychoanalyst is responding to an individual patient who came to him for alleviation of personal suffering; the anthropologist is trying to understand the shared culture of a large number of people—there is also considerable overlap in their concerns. Edward Sapir (1938/1963b), the anthropological linguist who shaped American cultural anthropology in the 1930s, believed that anthropology and psychoanalysis should be united under a common field of "cultural psychiatry."

From the time of W.H.R. Rivers—a British psychiatrist who treated war neuroses with psychotherapeutic methods, contributed to the interpretation of dreams (Rivers, 1917-18, 1923), did the classic ethnography of the Todas, and made significant contributions to the development of social anthropology (Slobodin, 1978)— the mutual influence and shared interests of anthropology and psychoanalysis have been great. Following Sapir's lead in bringing the two disciplines together, the psychoanalysts Erik Erikson, George Devereux, and most recently Jacques Lacan and Willy Apollon have made culture and language central to their psychoanalytic thought.

Of special interest to medical anthropology are studies of ritual modes of curing mental illness (shamanism, possession ritual, and others), and rituals that have a prophylactic effect in helping to resolve emotional conflict in situations of vulnerability, such as mourning. One anthropologist/psychoanalyst has applied cultural understandings to effective treatment of psychosis (Apollon, 1991). Several writers have drawn comparisons between the anthropologist's relationship with his or her native collaborators or "informants" and the kind of relationship established in the therapeutic situation. Culture shock is also a concern which was first identified in anthropology and which has important consequences for mental health—whether of the anthropologist in the field, or of the visitor or immigrant to another culture (Kracke, 1987). Also of anthropological interest is the development of psychoanalytic movements in new countries, especially those of the Third World. New cultures may face psychoanalysts with new kinds of personal problems and the culture itself may reshape the central concepts of psychoanalysis as it is practiced and thought about in each country. This may be seen in comparing psychoanalytic movements in different European cultures—the special developments of psychoanalysis in England and in France, for example; but even more, as psychoanalysis has taken root in many Third World cultures, the growth of psychoanalysis in India (Kakar, 1990), Japan (Okonogi, 1978-79), and most recently China.

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