Handbook of Culture, Therapy, and Healing

By Uwe P. Gielen; Jefferson M. Fish et al. | Go to book overview
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Culture and the Origins of Psychopathology

Horacio Fabrega, Jr. University of Pittsburgh

This chapter explores intellectual territories in the social and biological sciences that are important to cross in order to reach an optimal, culturally appropriate, and theoretically compelling understanding of mental illness that can be represented in a system of diagnosis, classification, and healing (Fabrega, 2002).

There are many specific and general terms for describing the psychological, social, and physiological disturbances ordinarily designated as mental illness, emotional illness, and psychiatric disorders. Specific terms include, for example, anxiety, depression, dementia, mania, psychosis, and personality disorders. Many types of conditions that encompass problems of personal experience and behavior are referred to collectively as psychopathology. Other familiar, general terms are mental illness, social maladjustment, and emotional health problems. Looking beyond contemporary diagnoses, we encounter terms such as insanity, madness, craziness, and the like, often used by social historians, that describe particular types of psychopathology viewed in a social context.

The cultural enterprise in human psychology must be taken seriously because any society shows and recognizes the totality of mental health issues that are covered by my chosen general term "psychopathology." Consequently, it needs to be acknowledged at the outset, that this usage represents an analytical, theoretical, scientific, and, in this sense, etic, perspective.

The term etic, from phonetic, indicates an external, scientific frame of reference and contrasts with emic, from phonemic, which involves an intracultural point of view. In a cultural-anthropological formulation, etic signifies the analyst's scientific point of view regarding a phenomenon (e.g., what a pattern of belief or social practice is interpreted by the analyst to imply or mean). An emphasis on an emic point of view draws attention to what a social practice as a pattern of belief means in the culture of the group being studied.


An initial problem that must be identified and then set aside stems from the fact that my approach in this chapter is historically and culturally specific. Although it is couched in a scientific frame of reference and allegedly etic, it is also emic. The history and culture of my society has produced a knowledge base, conceptual categories, and educational institutions that in turn determined my approach. Concerns about


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Handbook of Culture, Therapy, and Healing
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