Culture and Personality, General Theory, Perception

I’m Going Mental For Anthropology

It seems that anthropology looks at the norms of different societies, but I haven’t seen them look at the abnormal things in societies, such as mental disorders. I am pretty sure that other cultures have mental disorders and clearly deal with them in different ways. Through my classes in psychology we have not only talked about how different tests are designed to help find people with disorders, but also understand the degree of the disorder in both the United State and many other cultures. Although, I highly doubt that they have made a test compatible for a culture such as, I don’t know, the Nuer. I know that any tests that have been created will not work for smaller cultures like the Nuer because they focus on the general population in major societies.

            I know that in “Engaging Anthropological Theory”, by Mark Moberg, he talked about the wonderful Freud and how they took a look at his Oedipus complex based theory.  Moberg also talks about transference and projection and other things like that; but, what I am looking at is mental disorders such as schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder. I know that a good amount of them can be transferred through genetics, but I’m sure that these smaller cultures can’t escape some of the disorders. If they could, I am pretty sure that psychologists and anthropologists would jump on how to effectively rid these people from having these disorders. I know that a lot of mental disorders are triggered by stressful events and traumatic experiences, but I just haven’t seen them addressing these symptoms in other cultures in any of the books we have read so far.

            I wondered what people would do if any of these cultures did have someone in their village with a mental disorder? Would they try to faith heal them, exercise or banish them from their village. I know that in the film we watched in class they had a scene where they believed someone to be possessed by a dead relative. I couldn’t help but think: did this person had something wrong with them or did a confirmation bias occur. Oh, if you don’t know what a confirmation bias is, it is when people will favor their beliefs until it becomes their reality even if everyone else views it as wrong (side note: I wonder if a confirmation bias happens a lot in anthropology as it does in other areas).  It is interesting to see how misunderstood people with mental disorders are treated in our society, but at the same time fascinating to see how other cultures view them.

            If you don’t know what some of the major mental disorders are, they include: schizophrenia, border-line personality, bipolar, and character disorders (which include eating disorders, anxiety, OCD, etc.).  If you would like to know more about these disorders, please comment on this post and I can try to explain them to you.

Back to the main point, my question is: do other smaller cultures, such as the Neur, experience any of these disorders? Since I am new to anthropology I am very curious to hear what everyone else thinks about this topic.


7 thoughts on “I’m Going Mental For Anthropology

  1. Chris Allen says:

    That’s a really interesting question, and one I have not thought much about. Cross-cultural comparisons of mental illness. I’m sure there must be a lot of literature out there about it; now I kind of want to read some.

    Though I have not read Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization myself, and he’s addressing European civilization specifically, he does have a lot to say about madness as manifested in societies prior to the advent of the beginnings of psychology or mental health care. He touches a little bit on modern management of people with mental illness Discipline and Punish which I did read recently, but in a modern context.

    Speaking entirely conjecturally, I suspect that without the socially-constructed categories of mental illness that exist now, people would relate to people with schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder very much individually.

    (I should note that while I believe in the importance and effectiveness of a lot of psychological treatment, I also believe that categorization of illnesses is very much an inexact and socially constructed phenomenon. We see that in the reclassification of homosexuality from deviant to non-deviant [sorry if I’m using incorrect terms here; I don’t know the jargon], or in the kinds of discussions like this one about just how to define depression.)

    Anyway, and again speaking from conjecture, I would guess that rather than seeing a mental illness as a box within which to put someone that determines how that person should be interacted with, the mental illness might instead be seen as simply a part of that person’s nature. “Oh, that’s just the way Bob is; he talks to the spirits.” There wouldn’t be a framework to put a mentally ill person within that would shape how we perceive and interact with them; there is just the person and our own personal experiences with them.

    Maybe Dr. Gillogly will have more to say on this.

    • I found that NPR discussion fascinating. Two weeks and your grief should be over? My dad’s been dead over 30 years and I still grieve him on occasion. These categories of grief (normal) and depression (abnormal) are, indeed, not so clear as we would like them to be.

  2. Chris Allen says:

    Meh; I’m not allowed to edit my comments. I think that’s intelligible anyway, despite the botched link. Maybe I shouldn’t post at 1:30 in the morning?

  3. Amanda Sailors says:

    I’m also a psychology major, so I find this post very interesting. There is a lot of evidence to illustrate that cultural components play a huge role in mental illness. For example, I know that schizophrenia is significantly more prevalent in Western cultures than in other parts of the world. There are some mental illnesses that only exist within their cultural constructs. One example of this is dhat, a disorder that affects Indian males, characterized by an excessive anxiety about loss or depletion of semen. Although this may sound extremely bizarre to us as Westerners, dhat makes sense in culturally relative terms because of the belief in certain Indian cultures that semen is essential for survival and well being.

    I would also be very interested in learning more about the prevalence of mental illness among the Nuer and their attitudes towards those illnesses.

  4. Oh, boy, this is fun! OK – I’m going to go along with Chris and point out that even though the diseases are / can be genetically based, the category itself is going to be culturally constructed. I’m also going to add in an environmental element and suggest that perhaps _expression_ of various genes and illnesses vary considerably depending on toxins, social inputs/stressors, and so on. It’s a BIG question and way too poorly examined.
    I like Amanda’s example. I’ll give you one closer to home. You all will LOVE this one. Vagina dentata. Yes, I just wrote that on a blog for and by students.
    This is a fear that the vagina has teeth and will, well you know what it will do …. It’s a male fear. Sounds pretty crazy, right? There’s a horror movie based on it. You can find pages that discuss why people of the past had this ‘mistaken’ idea (they were REALLY dermoid cysts!), etc.
    But here’s another take. I had a friend who was a practicing psychiatrist in Chicago for decades. He told me that this male fear of the vagina dentata used to be quite common in his practice. He’d get young men who had just married or who were being encouraged by friends to do a little sexual exploration (quite all right for men) into his office because they just couldn’t do IT. They were afraid. They had nightmares. So he’d treat them for their fear, which he saw as a fear of sex, sexuality, etc.
    And then, poof! No more patients with this fear. What happened? The Pill and the Sexual Revolution and Feminism. All of a sudden, sex was not so weighted with meaning and morality. People started sexual exploration earlier; girls did not have to resist giving in; no one listened to their parents. And, exposed regularly to sex, the phobia among men disappeared.
    Please note, this is a highly heteronormative account. I have only heard about this re: heteromales’ fear of the act of heterosex.
    But, perhaps, the opening up of possibilities for being homosexual also meant that men who really did not want to sleep with women and did not know why were now free not only to BE gay but to simply conceive of it as a possibility.
    My friend’s theory was that, basically, as social and cultural conditions changed, the underlying fears disappeared.
    Where else do we find these fears? In certain cultures of Highland Papua New Guinea, where the genders are highly segregated and wives are often from enemy lineages. Men may have had almost no interaction with women aside from a mother and sisters (and that limited since they were 10 or 12), so that prospect of doing something like THAT with an enemy was fundamentally frightening. In short – a different cultural construction.
    The point is this – there’s variation in definitions, which I think Thomas got to. So, for example, schizophrenia might simply be defined as, oh, being attached to the spirits or ancestors in some cultures. AND there’s different ways in which mental illness might or might not be a problem (Foucault, Madness & Civilization, free download @; I’ve observed how care for the mentally ill simply is not such an inconvenience in tribal societies. AND there might be behavior that we would define as mentally ill but are culturally acceptable ways of stating an emotional need in that society. AND There might be differences in expression of the genes that cause certain types of mental illness – e.g., the toxins in our environment might be having a big influence here.
    IN short – BIG topic. We’ll cover some of this more when we read about Mead and Boas.
    Cross-cultural deviance – sounds like a good winterim class, doesn’t it?

  5. For an example of ways in which there’s normal behavior (ghost possession) that looks like mental illness to us in the west but is considered normal in other settings, see Taraka’s Ghost (,d.b2I, for a pdf – or just google Taraka’s Ghost).

  6. Tom Montemurro says:

    i felt that this topic would be interesting for not only me, but other people to read. I know that mental illness would and could be looked at differently among the different cultures and their beliefs. I have to still read through the links posted, but i am happy that there is some other information out there even though my psychology focus is not related to mental illness. and vaginal teeth that seems so out there,but interesting to see that there are people out there who believe that.

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