28.2.15

Wait, what do you study? Discussing Psychological and Psychiatric Anthropology


This post is for everyone who holds a degree or job in an obscure subject. This is for the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, the Ecogastronomists, the Biostatisticians, Clothing Engineers, and the Informatics out there. For anyone who gives a ten-minute lecture when asked what they do (and not just because they like to talk). We all have the curse of the unheard-of career. The type of job which has a 98% rate of "Huh?" as a response. But that's ok, because we know what we do and we love it.
So what do I do?
Psychological and Psychiatric Anthropology. (huh?)
Telling people what I'm getting my degree in is a cringe-worthy experience. Not because my degree isn't awesome (it totally is), but because nobody has any clue what it is. And that's not their fault; I didn't know this particular discipline existed until fairly recently myself.
"So you go to school in London? What do you study?"
"Oh, um, I'm getting my MSc in Psychological and Psychiatric Anthropology"
this is followed by one of three responses:

A) "Oh, that's cool... So you like living in London?" [has no clue what I've just said, afraid to ask me to repeat myself]

B) "Ahh, a shrink, huh? I might have to chat with you sometime, ha ha!" [Heard psychology and stopped there]

C) "Oh, sweet! So what kind of stuff do you dig up?" [skipped the psych part, misheard/understood anthropology as archaeology]


Induce the cringing on my part, because I'm left with two options (neither of which are particularly attractive):

A) Sound super annoying and/or pretentious and correct them, attempt to explain what I actually study

B) Smile and nod, ignore the fact that they obviously have no clue what it is I do; feel sad.

So what is psychological and psychiatric anthropology? Good question. I'm nearing the end of my coursework and am getting close to leaving for field research, which is incredibly exciting. But before I make any announcements about what my field research is and where I get to go to do it, I should probably make sure all my friends, family, and readers are on the same page about the basic meaning of my degree.
So let's do just that: start with the basics.

The term "anthropology" comes from the Greek "anthropos" meaning "people", and "ology" meaning "study of". Therefore, anthropology is the study of people.
But Taylor, lots of fields study people. What makes anthropology special?
Good point. Anthropology is one of several social sciences alongside psychology, sociology, and archaeology (among others). A famous Harvard scholar in the 80's determined that each of the social sciences was generally responsible for one particular aspect of human nature:
psychology = thought and behavior
sociology = social structure
archaeology = material objects
anthropology = culture
Obviously there is loads of crossover between these fields, especially in anthropology, since culture is an incredibly dynamic and multi-layered concept.
In fact, the term "culture" is still contested amongst anthropology scholars, and no one definition has ever been determined. How can you bound culture? Where is the cutoff? What is included?
I'll spare you the lecture, but I will clarify that culture encompasses nearly everything. Food, religion, belief systems, politics, gender, nationalism, dress code, career choice, everything.
I remember when I first spoke to my supervisor about the courses here, he said "anthropology is the art of becoming hyper-unspecialized" - and that's the best way of describing the discipline that I've come across.
So I study culture. Which means I study nearly anything so long as it affects human development.
But there is one more unique aspect to the field of anthropology, and that is the way we go about doing research. Unlike psychology which is based heavily on experimentation, and sociology which is highly statistical and uses surveys, anthropologists use a method of study called "participant observation".
This phrase can be broken down fairly easily: "participant" meaning "to join in" and "observation" meaning "to watch". Put together, the phrase participant observation seems slightly counterintuitive. How can you both participate and observe?
Well, we figure the best way to understand human behavior and culture is to see it in action. And the best way to do this is to participate in daily life, and observe how others experience it.
Participant observation isn't so simple as showing up and watching a group of people for a few weeks; it is a time-intensive long-term project. Anthropologists conduct participant observation for anywhere from 1-3 years at a time, sometimes even longer. This is because people act differently around strangers than they do around people they know well. To understand how people really work, they have to be comfortable around you, and you have to be comfortable around them. This takes time, it takes learning the language, and it takes a lot of work.
So, to sum: anthropology studies culture, and goes about doing so primarily through the practice of participant observation.

Before I move on, I'll make one more clarification. 50% of people I tell my degree to think I study archaeology. Why all the confusion? Well, archaeology is technically a sub-discipline of anthropology. So it's one of those rectangle/square scenarios (to be fair, I can't ever remember if all squares are rectangles or the other way around). Archaeologists study culture through material objects, and typically look at historical groups - though this isn't always the case. So those people who go on digs to find Incan pot sherds are Archaeologists. I do not go on digs, I do not study Incas. Anthropologists (almost always) study living groups, and while they may have interest in material objects and their uses, are more concerned with belief systems, activities, and behavior.

Cool. So now we are all clear about what anthropology is. But my degree is in Psychological and Psychiatric Anthropology. What the heck does that mean?
Well, I'll back up a bit. You know how I mentioned before that anthropologists study culture, and culture is basically everything? Well, to deal with this issue, there are dozens of sub-disciplines of cultural studies. Religious anthropology, educational anthropology, medical anthropology, and Anthropology of Gender, to name a few. So psychological and psychiatric anthropology? We are yet another sub-discipline of anthropology, and we study human behavior and mental illness in the context of culture.
Though it seems obvious enough, behavior, thought processes, belief systems, mental health - anything dealing with psychology - is culturally dependent. With everything else in the world being so heavily reliant on culture, why wouldn't behavior and mental health be as well?
There are two parts to my degree/discipline: psychology and psychiatry. The psychology part focuses on behavior, while (my specialty/area of interest) lies in psychiatry, which looks at mental illnesses.

Some topics a psychological anthropologist might study include:
-How do emotions vary between cultures? Are there universal emotions? (e.g, famously there is no word/concept for "sadness" in Tahitian)
-What constitutes as normal behavior for a certain group? Can normalcy be defined?
-When does a person have personhood? (e.g, you can gain or lose your status as a person depending on different experiences/beliefs)

On the other hand, some topics and psychiatric anthropologist might study includes:
-Symptomatic differences among mental illnesses considered universal (e.g, depression is thought to be widespread, but it has different symptoms in different places)
-Culture-bound mental illnesses (illnesses thought only to exist among a certain group of people or in a specific location)
-Local forms of mental health treatment and care (e.g what a local healer might do to treat schizophrenia)
-Why/how are shamans effective in their treatments? (e.g, many times shamans cure illness through folk treatment, contrary to the biomedical perspective)

There are loads of other topics that we study, but these are a few of the most popular/easily explained. I am most strongly interested in mental illnesses, specifically the idea of culture-bound mental illnesses. These are a highly debated subject (aren't all mental illnesses culture-bound to some degree?) but nothing will get me rambling faster than mentioning them in conversation (as a result, avoid mentioning to them to me in person if you don't want a 20-minute monologue).

Anthropologists can work in a variety of contexts, with most dreaming of doing field research full time. With an MSc, and hopefully a PhD within the next few years, I hope to work as a researcher and professor for a major university, or for an anthropology museum. Of course, the big dream would be to become a National Geographic adventurer and journalist, though that's not quite what a typical anthropologist does ;)
PS if any of you have a hookup with NatGeo, put in a good word for me.

I have the opportunity to do 8-weeks of field research for my degree, followed by writing up my master's dissertation to complete the course. I'll announce in the next few weeks my plans for research, when things are a bit more set in stone.


Do you have any more questions about my degree? Want to learn more about any of these topics? Be sure to ask in the comment section below, or send me an email!



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