Psychological Anthropology

Psychological Anthropology

Psychological anthropology is an interdisciplinary subfield of anthropology that studies the interaction of cultural and mental processes. The subfield tends to focus on ways in which humans' development and enculturation within a particular cultural group—with its own history, language, practices, and conceptual categories—shape processes of human cognition, emotion, perception, motivation, and mental health. It also examines how the understanding of cognition, emotion, motivation, and similar psychological processes inform or constrain our models of cultural and social processes. Each school within psychological anthropology has its own approach.


Psychoanalytic anthropology

This school is based upon the insights of Sigmund Freud and other psychoanalysts as applied to social and cultural phenomena. Adherents of this approach often assumed that techniques of child-rearing shaped adult personality and that cultural symbols (including myths, dreams, and rituals) could be interpreted using psychoanalytical theories and techniques. The latter included interviewing techniques based on clinical interviewing, the use of projective tests such as the TAT and the Rorschach, and a tendency towards including case studies of individual interviewees in their ethnographies. A major example of this approach was the Six Cultures Study under John and Beatrice Whiting in Harvard's Department of Social Relations. This study examined child-rearing in six very different cultures (New England Baptist community; a Philippine barrio; an Okinawan village; an Indian village in Mexico; a northern Indian caste group; and a rural tribal group in Kenya).

Some practitioners look specifically at mental illness cross-culturally (George Devereux) or at the ways in which social processes such as the oppression of ethnic minorities affect mental health (Abram Kardiner), while others focus on the ways in which cultural symbols or social institutions provide defense mechanisms (Melford Spiro) or otherwise alleviate psychological conflicts (Gananath Obeyesekere). Some have also examined the cross-cultural applicability of psychoanalytic concepts such as the Oedipus complex (Melford Spiro).

Others who might be considered part of this school are a number of scholars who, although psychoanalysts, conducted fieldwork (Erich Fromm) or used psychoanalytic techniques to analyze materials gathered by anthropologists (Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, Géza Róheim).

Because many American social scientists during the first two-thirds of the 20th century had at least a passing familiarity with psychoanalytic theory, it is hard to determine precisely which ones should be considered primarily as psychoanalytic anthropologists. Many anthropologists who studied personality (Cora DuBois, Clyde Kluckhohn, Geoffrey Gorer) drew heavily on psychoanalysis; most members of the "culture and personality school" of psychological anthropology did so.

In recent years, psychoanalytic and more broadly psychodynamic theory continues to influence some psychological anthropologists (such as Gilbert Herdt, Douglas Hollan, and Robert LeVine) and have contributed significantly to such approaches as person-centered ethnography and clinical ethnography. It thus may make more sense to consider psychoanalytic anthropology since the latter part of the 20th century as more a style or a set of research agendas that cut across several other approaches within anthropology.

Culture and personality

Configurationalist approach

This approach describes a culture as a personality; that is, interpretation of experiences, guided by symbolic structure, creates personality which is "copied" into the larger culture. Leading figures include Edward Sapir, Ruth Benedict, A. Irving Hallowell, and Margaret Mead.

Basic and modal personality

Major figures include John Whiting (anthropologist) and Beatrice Whiting, Cora DuBois, and Florence Kluckhohn.

National character

Leading figures include sociologist Alex Inkeles and anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn.


Major figures: Georges Devereux, Tobie Nathan, Catherine Lutz, Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo, Renato Rosaldo, Charles Nuckolls and Dorinne K. Kondo

Cognitive Anthropology

Cognitive anthropology takes a number of methodological approaches, but generally draws on the insights of cognitive science in its model of the mind. A basic premise is that people think with the aid of schemas, units of culturally shared knowledge that are hypothesized to be represented in the brain as networks of neural connections. This entails certain properties of cultural models, and may explain both part of the observed inertia of cultural models (people's assumptions about the way the world works are hard to change) and patterns of association.

D'Andrade (1995) sees the history of cognitive anthropology proper as divisible into four phases. The first began in the 1950s with the explicit formulation of culture as knowledge by anthropologists such as Ward Goodenough and Anthony Wallace. From the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, attention focused on categorization, componential analysis (a technique borrowed from structuralist linguistics), and native or folk systems of knowledge (ethnoscience e.g., ethnobotany, ethnolinguistics and so on), as well as discoveries in patterns of color naming by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay. During the 1950s and 1960s, most of the work in cognitive anthropology was carried out at Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, Berkeley, University of California, Irvine, and the Harvard Department of Social Relations. The third phase looked at types of categories (Eleanor Rosch) and cultural models, drawing on schema theory, linguistic work on metaphor (George Lakoff, Mark Johnson). The current phase, beginning in the 1990s, has seen more focus on the problem of how cultural models are shared and distributed, as well as on motivation, with significant work taking place at UC San Diego, UCLA, UC Berkeley, University of Connecticut, and Australian National University, among others.

Currently, different cognitive anthropologists are concerned with how groups of individuals are able to coordinate activities and "thinking" (Edwin Hutchins); with the distribution of cultural models (who knows what, and how people access knowledge within a culture: Dorothy Holland, A. Kimball Romney, Dan Sperber, Marc Swartz); with conflicting models within a culture (Naomi Quinn, Holly Mathews); or the ways in which cultural models are internalized and come to motivate behavior (Roy D'Andrade, Naomi Quinn, Charles Nuckolls, Bradd Shore, Claudia Strauss). Some cognitive anthropologists continue work on ethnoscience (Scott Atran), most notably in collaborative field projects with cognitive and social psychologists on culturally universal versus culturally particular models of human categorization and inference and how these mental models hinder or help social adaptations to natural environments. Others focus on methodological issues such as how to identify cultural models. Related work in cognitive linguistics and semantics also carries forward research on the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis and looks at the relationship between language and thought (Maurice Bloch, John Lucy, Anna Wierzbicka).

Psychiatric anthropology

While not forming a school in the sense of having a particular methodological approach, a number of prominent psychological anthropologists have addressed significant attention to the interaction of culture and mental health or mental illness, ranging through the description and analysis of culture-bound syndromes (Pow-Meng Yap, Ronald Simons, Charles Hughes); the relationship between cultural values or culturally mediated experiences and the development or expression of mental illness (Thomas Csordas, George Devereux, Robert Edgerton, Sue Estroff, Arthur Kleinman, Robert Lemelson, Theresa O'Nell, Marvin Opler); to the training of mental health practitioners and the cultural construction of mental health as a profession (Charles W. Nuckolls, Tanya Luhrmann). Some of these have been primarily trained as psychiatrists rather than anthropologists: George Devereux, Abram Kardiner, Arthur Kleinman, Robert I. Levy, Roberto Beneduce.

Psychological anthropology today

During most of the history of modern anthropology (with the possible exception of the 1930s through the 1950s, when it was an influential approach within American social thought), psychological anthropology has been a relatively small though productive subfield. D'Andrade, for instance, estimates that the core group of scholars engaged in active research in cognitive anthropology (one of the smaller sub-subfields), have numbered some 30 anthropologists and linguists, with the total number of scholars identifying with this subfield likely being less than 200 at any one time.

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