My previous post, Exporting American mental illness, on Ethan Watters’ New York Times Magazine article, came together pretty quickly, in a few-hours’ rush of thinking, writing, and mistyping. Nevertheless, I’m glad I posted it because I really liked Watters’ original article, even though I took issues with attributing too much causal power to specialists’ knowledge about mental illness. I didn’t consider my original piece to be a ‘critique’ as I fully suspect many of my issues might have been addressed in the book-length version.
Over at Somatosophere, Eugene Raikhel has a great post on the original article. He’s very generous to my hurried effort but goes on to add in some really good discussion of multi-causal models in psychological anthropology and how difficult it actually is to think about complexity. He agrees with my brief piece (with one caveat that I would concede), but really goes on to take the discussion to a more sophisticated consideration of the question:
“How should anthropologists and cultural psychiatrists deal with this kind of complexity?” Is it enough to gesture toward complexity, calling it a “flow” or an “assemblage” and listing its various elements (as I’ve done above), or should we try to understand the various specific mechanisms through which what we often call macro-processes (like “globalization” or “industrialization”) shape the ways individuals experience and articulate their distress?
Raikhel goes on to discuss three different conceptual and concrete ways to try to link up these scattered forces into local explanations, drawing on Ian Hacking, Laurence Kirmayer and Norman Sartorius, and Tanya Luhrmann. All three are excellent examples of researchers doing the hard yards of making these links between macroscopic and psychological processes, between biology and culture on different levels. I won’t rewrite in less extensive form Raikhel’s excellent piece; just go to the original.
But I also want to point out the Raikhel, like me, really praises Watters’ original effort. Raikhel has a couple of key points of disagreement in the assumptions about modernity and stress and about the psychiatric ‘gray out’ that’s occurring with globalization, but he keeps these in perspective. I’m happy to criticize science journalists when they write stupid dreck, but the discussion of the Americanization of mental illness is quite thorough even though it’s reaching out to an audience that might not have run into this sort of anthropological analysis of psychiatry before; it’s a great piece to alert the public to the subtleties of human brain-culture-belief interactions (which we tend to call ‘neuroanthropology’ around here).