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Background


Background

Psychological anthropology played a crucial role in the early life of our discipline. The German “Völkerpsychologie”, the North American “Culture and Personality School”, and the British “Torres Strait Expeditions” all made important methodical, theoretical and transdisciplinary contributions to the broader anthropological project, whether through furthering our understanding of human socialisation and the relationship between persons and sociocultural environments, or through illuminating the emotional-affective, cognitive and physical ways in which persons relate to self and others. Since then, methodological, theoretical and conceptual approaches of psychological anthropology have moved into rich new fields, becoming increasingly concerned with power asymmetries, critical epistemologies, and the social and human effects of universalising ‘Western’ psychologies. In the face of growing human and cultural interconnectedness, contemporary psychological anthropology has fostered important insights into new forms of inequality and structural violence in local and global contexts, into changing forms of human subjectivity, and into how different emotions, affects and behaviours are understood, managed and responded to in diverse settings. Today, as the global political economy becomes more multi-polar, the assumption that psychological and bio-psychiatric ‘insights’, predominantly produced in the ‘West’, are to be imposed on other social groups, is itself now open to question, creating new tensions between universalising and relativising understandings of the human condition that psychological anthropology is uniquely positioned to address. Psychological anthropology has, in its more recent instantiations, broadly rejected the universalising tendencies of psychological discourse, preferring to illuminate historically and socio-culturally situated concepts of self, personhood and what it means to be human. In short, psychological anthropology had broadly avoided postulating the ‘psyche’ as an a priori given, rather understanding how different cultural understandings of ‘psyche’ and ‘self’ affect individual and social behavior and experience. This critical perspective at times conflicts with some of mainstream psychology’s key assumptions, according to which human beings are subjected to universal psychological patterns of feeling, thinking and interacting. However, rather than only aiming to refute such perspectives, psychological anthropology seeks to scrutinise, relativise and contextualise them, thereby encouraging fruitful dialogue and exchange with neighboring disciplines such as cultural psychology, transcultural psychiatry, neuro-anthropology, developmental psychology, philosophy, psychotherapy and bio-psychiatry (to only name a few).