What is Cultural Psychodynamics?

I frequently refer to parts of my research and writing as working from a “cultural psychodynamic” perspective. What is this? In short, it is a theory and methodology that brings together perspectives from cultural phenomenology and psychoanalysis (culture + psyche). It emphasizes the complexity of cultural subjects and examines the ways in which culture and psychology reciprocally shape each other. For a complete explanation of cultural psychodynamics, it is essential to refer to Kevin Groark.

Groark developed a contemporary and, perhaps, the most nuanced vision of this approach. His recent blog post, Cultural Psychodynamics: Notes on the Integration of Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis, is important reading on the topic. Below, I summarize Groark’s vision for cultural psychodynamics in reference to my research on infanticide and divination.

In my ethnographic research, I use a variety of interview approaches, from group discussions to person-centered ethnography. My methodology emphasizes attending to structural circumstances, social forms, cultural lifeworlds, psychodynamics, and individual experiences and meaning-making processes. While the interviews and subsequent analysis are not clinically focused, I draw on an “applied psychoanalytic sensibility” throughout (Molino 2004, 34). This directs my attention to individuals’ life histories, relationships, emotions, use of symbols, and interpretations of experience. The approach pushes the limits of inquiry and offers theory deepening understanding of people’s lifeworlds.

Cultural psychodynamics spans a long held conceptual gap in anthropology existing between sociocultural and psychological explanations; a disjuncture that Fortes described as the ways in which “manifest custom” [culture] corresponds to or is a product of the “mental mechanisms” postulated by psychoanalytic theory. In methodological terms, Fortes questioned how we might bridge the “gap between the level of observation open to the ethnographer and the level of observation and theory at which psychoanalysis operates” (1987, 182-183). A broad solution entails attuning ourselves to the dialogic interplay and tension between individual subjectivity and social forms to capture the complexity of culturally-inflected experience, and present a non-reductive, holistic reimagining of what it means to be human (Ingham 1996, ix).

While psychological theories and methods can enhance our perceptual and analytic skills, they alone cannot be the primary mode of analysis. As Devereux (1980) said, understanding human behavior requires the cross-fertilization of both cultural and psychological methods and explanations. He argued that any meaningful framework for the study of humanity must not dissociate the study of culture from the study of psyche, since both are inseparable yet complementary aspects of human cultural psychology (1980:71). Psychological approaches are best used alongside other ethnographic methods or, in Devereux’s words, should be engaged in a “serial” rather than a mixed manner (1980, 320).

LeVine (2010) characterized cultural psychodynamics as encompassing culturally constituted defense mechanisms (see Spiro 1965) and drive-based psychoanalytic inquiries. More recent developments in psychoanalytic thought, however, stress intersubjectivity, object seeking, and relational patterns, which better integrate and triangulate with current modes of ethnographic inquiry.

Offering a contemporary vision that links psychodynamic approaches with cultural phenomenology, Groark’s formulation of cultural psychodynamics focuses on the subtle intrapsychic processes that underpin social interaction and experience, providing a window into how “local beliefs, social relations, and the practices of everyday life structuralize this psychic field, encouraging certain culturally specific psychodynamic configurations” (2017, 20). Through this approach, he hopes “to better understand distinctly organized subjects and lifeworlds, providing for a more granular focus on the inner world, how it works, and how it is both shaped by and shaping of the social milieu and cultural context in which it occurs” (Groark 2017, 20). The resulting interpretations avoid both psychological reductionism and social determinism, decolonizing Eurocentric models of mind and experience by working from local ethnotheories of experience and emotion while maintaining a commitment to culturally shaped, psychically complex subjects (Groark 2009, 716; Groark 2017, 21).

For studying the spirit child phenomenon, a cultural psychodynamic approach has been essential for linking and interpreting the intrapsychic, intersubjective, and cultural dimensions of meaning making. It has illuminated the subtleties of the spirit child phenomenon while providing greater nuance to my analysis of how social structures, relational dynamics, and cultural beliefs encourage specific interpretations of—and responses to—abnormal children and misfortune. In my divination research, cultural psychodynamics permits me to approach subjectivity from multiple levels—what is consciously lived and what is beyond awareness or understanding, including the unrecognized structures that shape life. This necessitates a “bifocal” engagement with lived experiences and the cultural and intrapsychic dynamics that shape an individual and their relationships.

Want more? Check out my book “Spirit Children” here and my other essays here


Devereux, George. 1980. Basic Problems of Ethnopsychiatry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fortes, Meyer. 1987. Religion, Morality and the Person: Essays on Tallensi Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Groark, Kevin. 2009. “Discourses of the Soul: The Negotiation of Personal Agency in Tzotzil Maya Dream Narrative.” American Ethnologist 36 (4): 705-721.

Groark, Kevin. 2017. “Specters of Social Antagonism: The Cultural Psychodynamics of Dream Aggression among the Tzotzil Maya of San Juan Chamula (Chiapas Mexico).” Ethos 45 (3): 1-28.

Ingham, John. 1996. Psychological Anthropology Reconsidered. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Levine, Robert. 2010. Psychological Anthropology: A Reader on Self in Culture. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Molino, Anthony. 2004. Culture, Subject, Psyche: Dialogues in Psychoanalysis and Anthropology. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

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