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Psychological anthropology is a highly interdiscplinary subfield of anthropology that studies the interaction of cultural and mental processes. In particular, psychological anthropologists tend 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 how cultural and social processes work. It is comprised of several schools or subfields, each of which has varying approaches within.


Psychoanalytic AnthropologyEdit

This school of psychological anthropology is based upon the psychological 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 TAT and Rorschach, and a tendency towards including case-studies of individual interviewees in their ethnographies.

Some practitioners within this tradition looked specifically at mental illness cross-culturally (George Devereux), at the ways in which social processes such as the oppression of ethnic minorities affected mental health (Abram Kardiner), or the ways in which cultural symbols or social institutions provide defense mechanisms (Melford Spiro) or otherwise alleviated psychological conflicts (Gananath Obeyesekere). Some also examined the cross-cultural applicability of psychoanalytic concepts such as the Oedipus complex (Melford Spiro).

A number of scholars who are primarily known as psychoanalysists, but who conducted fieldwork (Erich Fromm) or used psychoanalytic techniques to analyze materials gathered by anthropologists (Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, Geza Roheim), might also be considered as part of this subfield.

Considering that many American social scientists during the first two-thirds of the 20th century had at least a passing familiarity with psychoanalytic theory, it is difficult 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 continue to influence some psychological anthropologists (such as Gilbert Herdt, Douglas Hollan, 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.

See also: Robert I. Levy, Ari Kiev.

Culture and PersonalityEdit

Configurationalist ApproachEdit

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 PersonalityEdit

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

National CharacterEdit

Leading figures include sociologist Alex Inkeles and anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn.


Major figures: Catherine Lutz, Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo, Renato Rosaldo, Dorinne K. Kondo.

Cognitive AnthropologyEdit

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.[1] 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.[2]

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, University of California, 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,[3] 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, Bradd Shore, Claudia Strauss).[4] Some cognitive anthropologists continue work on ethnoscience (Scott Atran) and on methodological issues such as how to identify cultural models.[5][6] 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).[7][8]

Psychiatric AnthropologyEdit

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, Theresa O'Nell, Marvin Opler); to the training of mental health practitioners and the cultural construction of mental health as a profession (Tanya Luhrmann). Some of these have been primarily trained as psychiatrists rather than anthropologists: George Devereux, Abram Kardiner, Arthur Kleinman, Robert I. Levy.

Psychological Anthropology TodayEdit

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.[9]

At present, relatively few universities have active graduate training programs in psychological anthropology. These include:

Also, social medicine and cross-cultural/transcultural psychiatry programs at:

See alsoEdit


  1. D'Andrade, Roy G. (1995). The Development of Cognitive Anthropology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Strauss, Claudia and Naomi Quinn (1997) A Cognitive Theory of Cultural Meaning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  3. D'Andrade (1995: 244-248)
  4. D'Andrade, Roy G. and Claudia Strauss. (1992) Human Motives and Cultural Models. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Holland, Dorothy and Naomi Quinn, (Eds.) (1987) Cultural Models in Language and Thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Quinn, Naomi, (Ed.) (2005) Finding Culture in Talk: a collection of methods. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  7. Wierzbicka, Anna (1999) Emotions across Languages and Cultures: diversity and universals. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  8. Wierzbicka, Anna (1993) "A conceptual basis for cultural psychology." Ethos 21:205 - 231.
  9. D'Andrade (1995: xiv)


Selected Historical Works and TextbooksEdit

  • Bock, Philip K. (1999) Rethinking Psychological Anthropology, 2nd Ed., New York: W. H. Freeman
  • D'Andrade, Roy G. (1995). The Development of Cognitive Anthropology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hsu, Francis L. K., ed. (1972) Psychological Anthropology. Cambridge: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc.

Selected Theoretical Works in Psychological AnthropologyEdit

  • Bateson, Gregory (1956) Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Hallowell, A. Irving (1955) Culture and Experience. New York: Schocken Books.
  • Kilborne, Benjamin and L. L. Langness, eds. (1987). Culture and Human Nature: Theoretical papers of Melford E. Spiro. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Quinn, Naomi, ed. (2005) Finding Culture in Talk: a collection of methods. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Sapir, Edward (1956) Culture, Language, and Personality: selected essays. Edited by D. G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Schwartz, Theodore, Geoffrey M. White, and Catherine A. Lutz, eds. (1992) New Directions in Psychological Anthropology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Shore, Bradd (1995) Culture in Mind: cognition, culture, and the problem of meaning. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Shweder, Richard A. and Robert A. LeVine, eds. (1984). Culture Theory: Essays on mind, self, and emotion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Strauss, Claudia and Naomi Quinn (1997). A Cognitive Theory of Cultural Meaning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wierzbicka, Anna (1999) Emotions across Languages and Cultures: diversity and universals. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Selected Ethnographic Works in Psychological AnthropologyEdit

  • Benedict, Ruth (1946) The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: patterns of Japanese culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Briggs, Jean (1970) Never in Anger: portrait of an Eskimo family. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • DuBois, Cora Alice (1960) The people of Alor; a social-psychological study of an East Indian island. With analyses by Abram Kardiner and Emil Oberholzer. New York: Harper.
  • Herdt, Gilbert (1981) Guardians of the Flutes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Levy, Robert I. (1973) Tahitians: mind and experience in the Society Islands. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lutz, Catherine (1988) Unnatural Emotions: Everyday sentiments on a Micronesian atoll and their challenge to Western theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Rosaldo, Michelle Zimbalist (1980) Knowledge and Passion: Ilongot notions of self and social life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Scheper-Hughes, Nancy (1979) Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics: mental illness in rural Ireland. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Swartz, Marc J. (1991) The Way the World Is: cultural processes and social relations among the Swahili of Mombasa. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Selected Works in Psychiatric AnthropologyEdit

  • Kardiner, Abram, with the collaboration of Ralph Linton, Cora Du Bois and James West (pseud.) (1945) The psychological frontiers of society. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Kleinman, Arthur (1980) Patients and healers in the context of culture: an exploration of the borderland between anthropology, medicine, and psychiatry. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • -- (1986) Social origins of distress and disease: depression, neurasthenia, and pain in modern China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Kleinman, Arthur, & Good, Byron, eds. (1985) Culture and Depression: studies in the anthropology and cross-cultural psychology of affect and disorder. Berkeley / Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Luhrmann, Tanya M. (2000) Of two minds: The growing disorder in American psychiatry. New York, NY, US: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
  • O’Nell, Theresa D. (1996) Disciplined Hearts: History, identity, and depression in an American Indian community. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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