Culture in Mind: Toward a Sociology of Culture and Cognition

By Karen A. Cerulo | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 14

Culture, Harmful Dysfunctions and the Sociology of Mental Illness

Allan V. Horwitz

A central question in the sociology of mental illness involves how to separate the universal from the culturally specific aspects of mental disorders. As Wakefield notes in his incisive critique of sociological work, sociologists have emphasized the culturally specific side of disorders and have unwisely rejected the notion that there is a universal aspect to the concept of mental disorder. 1 Wakefield accurately argues that a universal concept of mental disorder is necessary for a number of reasons. Without some concept of what a legitimate mental disorder is, sociologists are unable to critique the empirical practices of the mental health professions because they cannot claim that any model of mental illness is any better (or worse) than any other model. In particular, a universal concept serves as a basis for questioning current standards for judging mental disorders, which vastly overestimate the number of people who are mentally ill. The recent Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health, for example, uses community studies to estimate that 50 million people in the U.S. develop mental disorders each year (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 1999). The lack of a universal concept of mental disorder also precludes the possibility of comparing mental disorders across differing cultural contexts: The study of cross-cultural variation is impossible unless something constant serves as a point of reference for what is being compared. Finally, a universal concept of mental disorder not only indicates what sorts of conditions should be considered valid mental

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