Cultural Anthropology and Psychiatry: SMOPS 11

“Cultural Anthropology and Psychiatry” is perhaps the best summary of Sapir’s approach to what would become known as the ‘culture and personality’ movement in anthropology. But this brief, rich, and intelligent essay is more then that. It is also a statement about the nature of culture, the role of human agency in culture, and the complex, differentiated nature of culture. It is a remarkable piece that demonstrates the incredible clarity and sophistication of Sapir’s thought.

Cultural Anthropology and Psychiatry
, by Edward Sapir, edited and with an introduction by Alex Golub

Sapir begins his essay discussing anthropology’s main problem: anthropologists claim to study intersubjectively held beliefs, but alway do so through the testimony of individuals — and often, only one or two key informants. But can we generalize about what ‘The Haida’ believe on the basis of talking to one Haida person? What is the relationship between a single individual’s belief and the culture of the group as a whole?

He then moves on to the flaws of psychiatry. Psychiatry has never located the organic basis of the mental illness it claims to treat, and clearly lacks the efficacy of other branches of medicine. Sapir this is because human relationships, rather than biological constitution, are the source of ‘mental’ illness: the death of a loved one causes depression, abuse as a child makes one paranoid, and so on. Indeed, social relationships can produce ‘purely organic’ (biological) illnesses — for instance job stress at work can lead to an upset stomach. To be effective, then, psychiatry must understand these relationships.

Sapir then criticizes the Freudians for arguing that the mentally ill regress to the mental level of primitive people. This can’t be true, says Sapir, since all human beings share the same basic psychological makeup. Rather, he claims, anthropology is valuable to psychiatry because it shows that the definition of ‘normal’ varies within and across cultures and enables a more accurate and generalizable theory of culture and personality.

Sapir then enters into a remarkable and dense discussion of the nature of culture itself, a discussion which anticipates much of the argument of Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality by forty years. He begins by claiming that we cannot speak of the opposition of ‘individual’ to ‘society’ since ‘society’ is not a real thing, but an abstraction made by anthropologists to cover a wide range of concrete behavior. What we call ‘a culture’ or ‘a group’ is a rough and imprecise shorthand for a poorly defined group of people united by a label (‘Republicans’ or ‘the poor’) or by geography (‘New Yorkers’ or ‘The South’).  All cultures — if we still wish to speak of them as bounded at all — are internally heterogenous. A physicist at Harvard has a different stock of knowledge then the bartender who works across the street from the university. Even if cultural knowledge is shared, the psychological emphasis placed on it may vary. A businessman and an actress might both know the plot of Hamlet, but for one of them it is irrelevant to daily affairs, while to another it is central. Neither of them care about how they both intuitively produce grammatical sentence, even though this may be central for the anthropologist studying them.

To understand the relationship of personality to culture, we must pinpoint who specifically we are speaking off, and put the individual in the context of the actual people with whom he has relationships. The key is locating the the concrete social relationships that surround a person. Rather than assume that ‘individuals’ ‘adjust’ to ‘societal norms’ we must study how social life just is the process of people reacting to each other and the relationships they have with each other. This approach to culture and personality anticipates an empirically rigorous and conceptually careful approach to the study of social process, one that differs in its subtelty from some of the excesses that were to mar the more simplistic segments of the culture and personality movement which gained power in the 1930s and 1940s. It is not too much to say, therefore, that Sapir was truly ahead of his time.



Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

3 thoughts on “Cultural Anthropology and Psychiatry: SMOPS 11

  1. Thanks, Rex. What you are doing here is terrific. What is that famous line, the one about those who refuse to learn from history wind up repeating it. Sapir is a gem, and his writing speaks as clearly now as it did when this piece was first written.

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