Sex, Drugs, and Boredom

Why we should take entertainment more seriously than we do.

What is Psychological Anthropology?

Need a lesson in Psychological Anthropology?

My discipline, Psychological Anthropology (call it PA to save space), may be unfamiliar to many readers, so it's worth spending a few paragraphs introducing this field. This might help you to assess what you are reading on this blog. As I get underway, I'd better confess right off the bat that my description reflects my own prejudices-there are plenty of PAs who would disagree with most of what I'm about to say. Nobody appointed me the spokesperson for PA. But we have to start somewhere; let those who disagree write their own posts.

PAs are interested in many of the same questions as Psychologists, except that we PAs always try to think about the possibility that human activity is based not only in personality or the nervous system but also in a person's culture and social environment. This means that while PAs often study the same problems as Psychologists, they may do so from different angles, and as a result might end up asking different questions.

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As an example, let's take eating disorders. Psychologists studying eating disorders might work to understand (among many other things) what combinations of symptoms typify different eating disorders, the relationship of personality variables to eating disorders, and effective therapies to treat these illnesses. On the other hand PAs might ask: Are there cultural factors that contribute to eating disorders? After all, the odd religious ascetic aside, it seems pretty clear that eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia are significantly more common today than they were a century ago. Can something in our culture be contributing to the high incidence of eating disorders?

Which approach is correct? Both are, of course, it depends on what you are trying to accomplish. If you are treating a patient whose life is in danger because of a severe eating disorder, learning about the cultural factors that might be implicated in their illness is not likely to be at the top of your priority list. If, on the other hand, we want to understand the epidemiology of eating disorders, those factors might be of key importance.

How is PA different from Cross Cultural Psychology, a course that is often taught in Psychology departments? Some would say they are the same approach with different names. Both disciplines are concerned with such issues as how the understanding of mental illness-or its treatment-vary across cultures.

But some PAs question the assumptions embedded in the label "cross-cultural psychology." Often, these contrary folks (full disclosure: I'm one of them) might point out, the assumption behind much cross cultural psychology seems to be that we here in the West have stumbled upon the universal science of psychology, which can now be used to study societies which may think about human beings in ways that are quite different from us. But maybe that's not true.

For example, can you study the relationship between anger and anxiety in a society that has no words for either anger or anxiety? I'd say that to do so is to impose one's preconceptions on the data, never a good strategy for a scientist. Rather, I would say we need to learn how these other people conceptualize such feelings. In doing so, we might gain a new perspective on the relationship we want to understand.

I've only scratched the surface of the sorts of questions that interest PAs, but I hope that I have shown you that PA is a discipline that can both challenge and ultimately complement theories and research in Psychology.

You can learn more at Peter G. Stromberg's website.

Peter Stromberg, Ph.D., is an Anthropologist and author of Caught in Play: How entertainment works on you.

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