What is Cultural Psychodynamics?

I frequently refer to parts of my research and writing as grounded in or 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. 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, divination, and meaning-making.

In my ethnographic research, I use a variety of interview approaches, from group discussions to person-centered ethnography. My methodology emphasized attending to structural circumstances, social forms, cultural lifeworlds, psychodynamics, and individual experiences and meaning-making processes. Despite having a psychodynamic orientation, the interviews and subsequent analysis were not clinically focused. However, I conducted and interpreted many interviews with an “applied psychoanalytic sensibility;” an avenue that can enhance perceptual tools, push the limits of inquiry, and offer theory to develop deeper understandings of people’s lifeworlds (Molino 2004, 34).

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, according to Ingham, entails attuning to the dialogic interplay and tension between individual subjectivity and social forms to capture the complexity of people’s worlds and, ideally, present a non-reductive, holistic reimagining of what it means to be human (1996, ix).

While psychological and psychoanalytic theories and methods can enhance our perceptual and analytic skills, they alone cannot be the primary mode of analysis. Devereux frequently emphasized that understanding human behavior requires the application and cross-fertilization of both cultural and psychological methods and explanations. He was adamant that it is “impossible” for any meaningful framework for the study of humanity to “dissociate the study of Culture from the study of the psyche,” since they are inseparable yet complementarity concepts (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, for example, which better integrate and triangulate with current modes of ethnographic inquiry.

Offering a more contemporary vision that systematically links intrapsychic processes and psychodynamic approaches with a nuanced cultural phenomenology, Groark’s cultural psychodynamics works “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 the shaping of the social milieu and cultural context in which it occurs” (2017, 20). Questions central to the cultural psychodynamic approach consider the psychodynamic processes that underpin social interaction and experience and, Groark suggests, inquire into how “local beliefs, social relations, and the practices of everyday life structuralize this psychic field, encouraging certain culturally specific psychodynamic configurations.” And, in turn, it asks how these intrapsychic dynamics feed back into social life, shaping “shared frames of meaning and even sociocultural institutions” (Groark 2017, 20). The resulting interpretations notably avoid both the reductionism of an individual psychology alone and social determinism, and “effectively decolonizes Eurocenric models of mind and experience” by working from local ethnotheories of experience and emotion, and by maintaining a commitment to culturally shaped, psychically complex subjects (Groark 2009, 716; Groark 2017, 21).

For studying the spirit child phenomenon, this approach has been essential for linking and interpreting the intrapsychic, intersubjective, and cultural dimensions of meaning making, and has lent a greater sensitivity to how social structures, symbolic systems, and beliefs dialectically shape and encourage specific interpretations of abnormal children and misfortune (and not other understandings) (see Groark 2009, 716).


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.


Sections of this post are currently under review for publication. Cite as: Denham, Aaron (2017). “Of House or Bush: Cultural Psychodynamics of Spirit Children and Infanticide in Northern Ghana.” Unpublished manuscript under review. 

One thought on “What is Cultural Psychodynamics?

  1. Pingback: What is Cultural Psychodynamics? – Kevin P. Groark, Ph.D.

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