An Introduction to Psychoanalytic Anthropology: Perspectives (2/2)

This is the second post (of two) on psychoanalytic anthropology. The previous post, which discussed background details, is located here.

There is significant diversity in how anthropologists have engaged or adopted psychoanalytic methods and theory in their ethnographic research and writing.  To summarize these perspectives, I grouped these approaches into four categories.  While presented as distinct, the categories often overlap and are not mutually exclusive.

Reflecting On How We Know: “An Awareness of One’s Awareness”
Psychoanalytic ideas and practices have played a far-reaching role in directing attention to the role we play in the lives of those we work with and the influence of our intrapsychic processes in shaping the research trajectory. Psychoanalytically oriented anthropologists often work from a mode of attention that considers how their inevitable involvement consciously and unconsciously shapes the research design, interviews, interpretive and analytic processes, representations, and relationships with consultants. Attending to our participation in the research process can heighten our awareness of the role of desires, power relations, and self-other processes that influence the ethnographic dialogue and can inform how our anxieties and ethnocentrism, for example, influence the research.

Devereux is most noted for calling attention to the use of countertransference and our anxieties to better understand what it is that might blind us to other interpretations or lines of inquiry, proposing, in his words, the need for “an awareness of one’s awareness” (Anxiety to Method in the Behavioral Sciences, 1967, 23).  For Devereux, the ethnographer’s anxieties and countertransference are essential data that should not be simply explained away, but to be used as part of the explanation for the data and as a tool to understand what might be impeding our research.  Knowledge of psychoanalytic observational practices, Katherine Ewing notes, can help us overcome some of the difficulties and issues surrounding participant observation and how our relationship with informants shape our research and writing (“Is Psychoanalysis Relevant for Anthropology?” in Theodore Schwartz, et al., eds.,  New Directions in Psychological Anthropology, 1992, 252).

Method and Practice
Psychoanalytically oriented anthropologists adopt a wide range of psychoanalytic methods and practices, many of which are akin to clinically oriented techniques.  These practices, when used alongside ethnographic methods, enhance our ability to examine symbols, relational processes, and that what remains unsaid—specifically, the gaps, non-verbal communications, assumptions, and structures present in our interactions.  Depth metaphors are common in descriptions of what these methods offer.  Scholars speak of deep listening and attending to what lies beneath, underground, or in the shadows of our field interactions.  One might argue that this notion of depth is misleading or not relevant across cultures, since it implies an untapped or hidden repository requiring special skills to access.  Ewing remarked that the metaphor of depth is “unfortunate” because of its association with something underling or not directly observable within our dark interiors and thus outside the reach of anthropology and restricted to the domain of psychologists (ibid: 253).

Anthropologists commonly describe two similar psychoanalytically oriented ethnographic approaches, person-centered ethnography and clinical ethnography.  Articulated by Robert Levy and Douglas Hollan, person-centered ethnography reflects a mode of inquiry and listening that prioritizes the individual and their experiences of their social context and lifeworld.  When compared to other ethnographic approaches, interviews are frequently longer in duration and ongoing.  The ethnographer closely attends to self-processes and involvement in the present interaction.  Consideration is also given to the relationship between the consultants, communities, and their sociocultural and historical contexts.  Common themes of interest include inquiries into conflicts, coherences, and transformations.  Since the self is a focal area of study, closely related constructs such as the body, emotions, morality, and understandings around illness and healing are of particular interest (Robert Levy and Douglas Hollan, “Person-Centered Interviewing and Observation in H. Russell Bernard ed., Handbook of Methods in Cultural Anthropology, 1998, 333-364).  Similarly, clinical ethnography, as described by Gilbert Herdt and Robert Stoller, is the cross-cultural study and close examination of subjectivity, both that of the researcher and the participants.  Attention is paid to the symbols, context, demonstrations of agency, and the ways in which people express feelings, beliefs, and motives (Intimate Communications, 1990, 29-30).  Herdt, an anthropologist, and Stoller, a psychoanalyst, conducted ethnographic research together with the Sambia of Papua New Guinea, demonstrating their unique anthropologist-psychoanalyst collative ethnographic effort.

Practitioners using psychoanalytic practices recognize that the contexts and situations encountered during fieldwork are often quite different from that of Western clinical practice.  Time limits, research scope, and a less controlled setting can be limiting factors; however, ethnographers make efforts for privacy and long-term, multi-year arrangements.  Moreover, compared to clinical settings, ethnographers have the benefit of living within the community and participating in and observing daily life at a level not otherwise available in a clinical setting.  Nevertheless, while psychoanalytic approaches can be beneficial for short-term projects and brief interactions, clinical ethnography, Herdt and Stoller explain, “is like psychoanalysis, best done for years” (ibid: 31).

Interpretation and the Relations between Self and Society
Central to the psychoanalytic orientation in anthropology is the application of psychoanalytic concepts and theory to the interpretive process.  Vincent Crapanzano noted that interpretation has become a bridge between anthropology and psychoanalysis (“Some Thoughts on Hermeneutics and Psychoanalytic Anthropology,” in Theodore Schwartz, et al., eds., New Directions in Psychological Anthropology, 1992, 296).  Psychoanalytic anthropologists have been interested in interpreting symbolic expressions and processes and the role they play in emotional experiences, meaning creation, dream, fantasy, psychic conflict, and, importantly, how culture and other contexts shape these areas.  Key areas of inquiry include, for example, the interpretation of myth, rituals, and their symbolic content, the use of personal symbols and their relationship to the public, culturally constituted defense mechanisms and their role in managing psychic conflict, the relationship between symbolism, gender, and sexuality, and unconscious desires.  In their interpretive efforts, anthropologists will often include the effects of social change, stability, and globalization, for example.

Anthropologists are also interested in “cultural psychodynamics”—the study of the complex relationship between the subject, the vicissitudes of individual subjective experience, and the sociocultural context in which these processes are embedded. This study of the relationship between intrapsychic processes, such as defenses and fantasies, and the larger social structures and cultural representations has been an enduring area of study dating back to Freud. Early in the history of anthropology, Meyer Fortes regarded one of the more important questions within anthropology to be how culture corresponds to, or is a product of, the various “mechanisms” revealed by psychoanalysis. For example, in his discussion of the relationship between social structure and “psychological substructure,” Fortes described how Oedipal dynamics demonstrated between fathers and the first-born sons are built into Tallensi social organization as a means to manage it (Oedipus and Job in West African Religion, 1959). More recently, Robert LeVine described Mel Spiro’s exploration of the relationship between behavior, defense mechanisms, unconscious desires, and culture and Gananath Obeyesekere’s work on the connections of cultural narratives and the symbolic means of managing tension as important examples of research in cultural psychodynamics (Psychological Anthropology: A Reader on Self in Culture, 2010, 122).

While Robert LeVine characterizes cultural psychodynamics as a later phase in psychoanalytic anthropology focusing on topics such as culturally constituted psychic defenses and drive-based psychoanalytic theories, other recent perspectives in cultural psychodynamics continue to integrate newer work from more contemporary relational models emphasizing, for example, the role of intersubjectivity.  Kevin Groark offers a productive contemporary perspective on cultural psychodynamics that remains open to integrating a variety of methods and theories as a way to understand the complex mediation between individual idiosyncrasies and sociocultural worlds.  Avoiding both the reductionism of an individual psychology alone and social determinism, Groark describes cultural psychodynamics as bridging “the often disparate worldviews of anthropology and psychoanalysis, yielding a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the complex ways in which human subjectivity is shaped—and is, in turn, shaped by—the cultural world in which it is always embedded” (“Willful Souls: Dreaming and the Dialectics of Self-Experience Among the Tzotzil Maya of Highland Chiapas, Mexico,” in Keith M. Murphy and C. Jason Throop, eds., Toward an Anthropology of the Will, 2010, 122).

Shared Psychic Processes
This final category concerns the examination of shared or universal psychological processes, concerns, and cross-cultural comparisons.  Early interests in psychoanalytic anthropology were oriented toward whole cultures, characterizing the structures that constituted a basic personality within a culture, and discovering the larger patterns of thought and emotion.  Anthropologists took interest in finding similar psychological patterns or processes across cultures and studied topics such as the Oedipus complex, human developmental stages, child rearing practices, the presence of the unconscious across cultures, the ubiquity of sexual desire, and the cross-cultural presence of defense mechanisms such as repression.  Researchers also were concerned with constructions of normality and abnormality across cultures.

Many anthropologists remain adamant that we cannot understand culture and human experience without adequate consideration of the psychological.  While we cannot directly access or see into the minds of others, the inclusion of psychoanalytic orientations in anthropology can enhance our research efforts and offer greater openness toward and insight into self-processes, self-representations, and subjective experiences.  As described above, psychoanalytic perspectives work best when part of a larger anthropological toolkit and deployed according to one’s research goals and circumstances.  Further work in psychoanalytic anthropology will continue to recognize the benefit of the psychoanalytic tools available and, ideally, anthropologists will increasingly apply them to examine important topics ranging from inquiries into individual subjectivity in postcolonial settings to larger topics such as transnationalism and globalization, the entrenchment of neoliberalism, and the consequences of rapid social change.

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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