An Introduction to Psychoanalytic Anthropology: The Background (1/2)

There has always been a kinship between anthropology and psychoanalysis, however uneven, from Freud’s interest in anthropological data and his attempts to link the psyche with social forms, to more contemporary shared theorizations of the self and subjectivity in culturally diverse contexts. Psychoanalyst and anthropologist Elizabeth Bott-Spillius believed that while the content and expressions between psychoanalysis and social anthropology differed, their fundamental mode of thinking was “surprisingly similar” (“Anthropology and Psychoanalysis: A Personal Concordance,” The Sociological Review 2005, 670). Anthropologists have described several interpretive parallels between the disciplines, compared our ways of listening and orienting toward the other, emphasized the importance of attending to one’s own subjectivity, and even remarked that psychoanalysis is, ultimately, a “micro-ethnography.”

The diversity of perspectives within anthropology and psychoanalysis and the innumerable ways anthropologists use psychoanalytic themes make it difficult to articulate a decisive definition or to characterize a unified vision of psychoanalytic anthropology today. I am hesitant to call psychoanalytic anthropology a distinct disciplinary subfield within anthropology, despite several past references to it as such. Psychoanalytic orientations in anthropology cut across several subfields and anthropologists often draw upon psychoanalytic perspectives to enhance or frame selected parts of their ethnographic work, rather than committing themselves to dedicated psychoanalytic research agendas. Perhaps a more accurate depiction of the contemporary landscape of psychoanalytic anthropology is to say there are “psychoanalytically oriented” anthropologists or there are anthropologists working from positions that are psychoanalytically informed. What it means to have a psychoanalytic orientation will become clear shortly.

Despite my hesitancy, I broadly define a psychoanalytically oriented anthropology as using a range of psychoanalytic theories, methods, and practices in anthropological research, interpretation, and writing to frame research and interpretive efforts, orientations toward others, ways of listening, and modes of understanding the diversity of human life-worlds within their contexts. There is a shared recognition we cannot ignore the intertwined relationships between our embodiment, the subjective, and the intrapsychic and the sociocultural, political-economic, and historical life-worlds in which we dwell. It is attention to the relationship between the within and without.

George Devereux, an early figure who trained first as an anthropologist and later as a psychoanalyst, frequently emphasized that understanding human behavior requires the application and cross-fertilization of both social and psychoanalytic methods and explanations. He was adamant about including the psychological with the sociocultural and remarked 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 (Basic Problems of Ethnopsychiatry, 1980, 71).

Few anthropologists work solely from a psychoanalytic paradigm. While psychoanalytic theories and methods can enhance our perceptual and analytic thinking, they alone cannot be the sole mode of ethnographic analysis. They are best used alongside other approaches or, in Devereux’s words, be employed in a “serial manner.” Recently, Michael D. Jackson emphasized that rather than binding ourselves to specific theories, it is wise for both scholars and clinicians to explore variety of theoretical and methodological guidelines—or employ a “toolkit”—that varies according to the “exigencies of the situation we are trying to understand.” Such a toolkit could provide the most “therapeutically useful, analytically productive, or intellectually satisfying understanding” (“Commentary: The Complementarity of Intrapsychic and Intersubjective Dimensions of Social Reality,” Ethos 40: 1, 2012, 114).

George Devereux conducted several fieldwork trips in a Mohave community while working from a non-psychoanalytic perspective. He remained, in his words, “anti-Freudian” until his Mohave informant, he explains, “taught me psychoanalysis, as Freud’s patients had taught it to him” (“The Works of George Devereux” in George D. Spindler, ed., The Making of Psychological Anthropology, 1978, 333). I am often drawn to aha moments and the narratives of how anthropologists discovered or came to value psychoanalytic perspectives. Understanding what brings people to psychoanalytic theory is one way to demonstrate the strengths of the perspective and, importantly, inform how we introduce it to others.

A common discovery narrative involves reading Freud or another noted psychoanalyst who captured the reader’s interest and opened up for them new ways of thinking about humanity. This initial exposure often leads to further psychoanalytic exploration. Elizabeth Bott-Spillius remarked that after reading Klein, she knew psychoanalysis was for her and she continued reading other analysts as she began fieldwork with British families and soon began formal psychoanalytic training (“On Becoming a British Psychoanalysis,” Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 29, 204). Gananath Obeyesekere, distinguished by his research on personal symbols and religion, came to psychoanalysis from literature and a fascination with unconscious motivation. Vincent Crapanzano found psychoanalysis a useful interpretive schema against which to reflect (see Anthony Molino, Culture Subject Psyche, 2004). Howard Stein notes how he gravitated to the field after taking a class on culture and personality in anthropology. Stein also credits mentors that helped guide his reading and further his development. Ellen Corin describes how she did not initially suspect that when she first explored psychoanalytic theory it would become such a central part of her life.

In my case, it was the other way around. Psychoanalysis drew me into anthropology. During my early work as a child and family mental health counselor, I was fortunate to work for an agency that remained open to thinking from psychodynamic and other perspectives. While exploring a selection of readings, I came across a collection of work in psychoanalytic and psychological anthropology that opened new ways for me to think about mental health and the relationship between individual experience, family dynamics, and the sociocultural and political-economic context. The merging of psychological perspectives with anthropology offered more holistic and satisfying explanations that better fit how I was thinking through my work. However, later in graduate school, the interpretive approach of Clifford Geertz remained dominant—underscoring the inaccessibility of the mind with an emphasis that the study of culture rests only with what is visible. It was not until my first long-term period of fieldwork in Northern Ghana that again brought to the fore the importance of integrating psychoanalytic perspectives into my considerations of the relationships between the subjectivity, intra- and interpersonal processes, and the sociocultural.

Like Devereux’s experience, accounts of how one’s respondents or the community taught the anthropologist the importance of psychoanalytic thought are common. Recently, Byron Good emphasized the importance of a psychoanalytically attuned form of listening and conception of the self in fieldwork. He described how this realization occurred during a routine visit with a young Javanese man who earlier experienced his first episode of psychotic illness. Good notes how his phenomenological interest in the spirits and magical forces haunting the man, while fascinating, were incomplete. It was a psychological attunement that demonstrated a haunting that was, as he describes, “something far less exotic but more primal, the loss of his father.” Working solely from a phenomenological perspective missed essential elements of the man’s experience and loss. Good recognized that another sort of listening is necessary, one able to better attend that the “unspoken, unsaid, repressed, unspeakable—in politics and in everyday life, as well as in psychopathology” (“Phenomenology, Psychoanalysis, and Subjectivity in Java,” Ethos 40: 1, 2012, 32).

The background and training of psychoanalytically oriented anthropologists is eclectic. Early American anthropologists were encouraged to enter psychoanalysis under the position it would help in conducting ethnographic fieldwork. Scholars recognized the importance of knowing oneself before studying others. Today, teachers and advisors with an interest in psychological and psychoanalytic anthropology play a significant role in introducing and mentoring students. Some students and scholars can take advantage of psychoanalytic institutes or societies and participate in seminars and, sometimes, enter formal training programs. A few psychoanalytically trained anthropologists maintain a clinical practice while also working in academic settings. Several anthropologists approach the literature alone. One scholar remarked that much of her engagement in psychoanalytic ethnography has been self-taught. She described her trajectory as, “Nothing special. I just started reading about it and doing it.” Jadran Mimica describes how experience in analysis and on-going reading of psychoanalytic publications and case studies are essential to developing a psychoanalytic understanding of human experience (Explorations in Psychoanalytic Ethnography, 2007, 3).

There is significant diversity in how anthropologists have engaged or adopted psychoanalytic methods and theory in their ethnographic research and writing. In the next post, I group these into four overlapping categories.

Continue to Part Two

This is a revised excerpt from the introduction to a special issue on psychoanalytic anthropology I edited for Clio’s Psyche. Cite as: Denham, Aaron (2014). Psychoanalytic Anthropology. Clio’s Psyche 20(4):383-394. A full (non-revised) copy can be downloaded from my publications page.

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

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