Psychological Anthropology
November 17, 2010 11:00 PM   Subscribe

I've been assigned a research project for my anthropology class and would like to analyze a topic specifically in the sub-discipline of psychological anthropology. Can anyone who's familiar with this area throw some relevant ideas my way?

I'm considering looking at how Western conceptions of mental illness are affecting perceptions of depression, etc in other parts of the world.

Does anyone have other ideas? Are there "psychological anthropology" topics in contemporary popular news/culture that I could explore but am probably overlooking since I'm still wrapping my head around what this discipline involves? However, topics that are more obscure are still welcome.
posted by oceanview to Society & Culture (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think you could get something out of the depression idea. I'm not a specialist in the topic, but some references that come to mind are Unni Wikan's book on Bali, particularly the chapters on grief and sadness, and Nancy Scheper-Hughes's book on western Ireland, which addresses depression in a couple of instances. They're not exactly on point, but they'll show something about how anthropologists would approach a topic like depression. And they're close enough and come to mind so easily that I'm sure there must be more sources than you can shake a stick at.

The stereotypical undergrad argument paper would be something like "Is 'depression' a natural and universally-meaningful category that identifies a fundamental human experience?" or "Cultural practices for coping with depression: alternatives to the biomedical paradigm." The first question casts doubt on whether depression is really the same thing everywhere (akin to the question of whether 'paling,' the Balinese sense of disorientation from being off the island, is the same as anxiety or homesickness). The latter question accepts a more ordinary idea of what depression is but looks for different ways people handle it. Both are topics you can answer with a literature review. Gather a dozen examples, and admit it's not exhaustive, but that's a paper for sure.

But I'd try to avoid pinning down what "Western conceptions of mental illness" are, because there are an awful lot of them. Also, "perceptions of depression ... in other parts of the world" are hard to get at, empirically, unless you can read several different languages fluently. The many ways people talk about depression someplace specific would be great, if you're well-informed about that place and can speak the language really well, but that's basically graduate-level original research.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:42 PM on November 17, 2010

I'm not positive that this is what you're looking for, but perhaps one approach you could take is to examine how Western pharmaceutical companies have targeted and marketed their products to other cultures.

I'm thinking specifically of the methods used by drug companies to influence the Japanese perception of depression in the late 1990s-early 2000s. Results of a casual googling:
Drug Companies Push Japan To Change View of Depression (2002)
How Big Pharma changed the nature of depression in Japan (2010)
Does Your Soul Have a Cold? (2007 documentary)

Then you can get around the problem of definition that Monsieur Caution points out by referring directly to the terminologies and usages employed by the industry.
posted by iguessgabby at 12:53 AM on November 18, 2010

If you want to take a global tack, you might be interested in these books by Robert Desjarlais:
Body and Emotion: The Aesthetics of Illness and Healing in the Nepal Himalayas
World Mental Health: Problems and Priorities in Low-Income Countries.

If I recall correctly (and I'm extrapolating from my Anthropology of Sound notes), I believe the first book addresses the "spirit-calling rite," practiced by a shaman to "to rejuvenate a spiritless body."

The system of a patient suffering from lethargy and a "lack of presence" is flooded with sensory input (basically lots of noise), and the combination of music and image-evoking words is believed to act as a visuo-audial hook for the patient to follow into a "returned presence."

Which you have to admit is pretty cool.

Good luck with your project!
posted by iguessgabby at 1:19 AM on November 18, 2010

Through your school library, look up the journal called Ethos. It is the main journal of the Psychological Anthropological division of the American Anthropological Association and very respected. Your college should be an on line subscriber. There is a search engine on the right side of the Ethos main page. You can type in "depression" and get an interesting range of articles which may focus your topic. Good luck.
posted by Tylwyth Teg at 3:24 AM on November 18, 2010

This is a pretty good example of some topics covered in psych anth that have made it into popular culture.

this is old, but seems to get at the root of some of what you're interested in:
"Studying Mental Illness in Context: Local, Global, or Universal?" by Byron J. Good

These articles deal with the export of western psychological concepts:
body concept/eating
* "Never Leave Yourself: Ethnopsychology As Mediator of Psychological Globalization among Belizean Schoolgirls" by Eileen P. Andepson-Fye
* "Television, Disordered Eating, and Young Women in Fiji: Negotiating Body Image and Identity during Rapid Social Change" by Anne E. Becker

there is also a huge literature on trauma/export of PTSD

After you've looked at Ethos, I would also suggest Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry, since it seems like you're interested in psychopathology. A search for 'globalization' finds all sorts of interesting things. Transcultural Psychiatry may also produce some interesting/relavent articles for you, but its not an anthro journal.
posted by anthropophagous at 5:34 AM on November 18, 2010

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