Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Madness and Colonization: Psychiatry in the British and French Empires, 1800-1962

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Madness and Colonization: Psychiatry in the British and French Empires, 1800-1962

Article excerpt

A recent intersection of two historiographical strains points to a promising new direction for social and cultural history. Given the pervasive influence of Michel Foucault and Edward Said on much historical research since the 1970s, it is no surprise that several historians have drawn their attention to a topic that brings some of Foucault's and Said's most provocative contributions together: the problem of madness and its treatment in European colonies. (1) Scholars in British and French colonial history have in the last decade produced important works that revise our understanding of both colonialism and the social history of medicine through their interrogations of colonial psychiatry--that is, the establishment, administration, and practice of mental health care for both European and indigenous populations in Asian and African possessions from the early nineteenth century to decolonization. This literature responds not only to Foucault and Said, but also connects to influential works in post-colonial stu dies that investigate the psychology of colonial domination and complicate the racial divide that informed colonial contact.

Studies of colonial psychiatry have the capacity to engage with at least four distinct historiographies. First, this research decenters the history of Western psychiatry, a field that has grown substantially since the 1961 publication of Foucault's groundbreaking thesis, Histoire de la folie a l'age classique. Scholars have grappled with this dimension of medical history by examining social, political, technological, and professional aspects of psychiatry since the early modern era, encouraging a polemical debate over questions of progress, power, and professional interest. Foucault's contentions that psychiatric power responded to a wider scientific episteme in the modern era by delineating artificial barriers between reason and madness to protect the former from the latter's incipient threats has sparked wide-ranging criticism. Some argue that Foucault ignores historical truth when he describes a "Great Confinement" beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, as only a tiny fraction of the French population e ver experienced psychiatric incarceration. (2) Others agree that Foucault plays fast and loose with the historical record, but agree with his emphasis on the social implications of psychiatric confinement and treatment. (3) Regardless of the positions that post-Foucauldian historians have taken, however, the result is a spate of correctives that alternately test and complement Foucault's analysis through interrogations of psychiatric professionalization, the connections between psychiatry and politics, the importance of gender and race for mental health discourses, and the ways that medical technologies have combined with social policies to enhance psychiatry's coercive power in the twentieth century. (4) But as good as many of these works are, they focus exclusively on Western developments, and present a narrative of reform, professionalization, and technological innovation relevant to Europe and America. Studies in ethnopsychiatry offset the discourse of Western psychiatry to some extent, but like their Eur ocentric counterparts, they ignore the role of contact between Western and alternative psychiatric medicine. By their very nature histories of colonial psychiatry disrupt these accounts, elucidating the ways in which Western medicine's alliance to colonial authority encouraged a return to traditional practices in Asian and African colonies. (5)

As Foucault describes madness as an imperative discourse in an age of reason, Edward Said labels the "Orient" a topos of the Western academic imagination. Just as Foucault has come to represent the trend toward a constructivist approach in the history of psychiatry, then, Said's work encapsulates a move under way in the 1970s toward a scholarly preoccupation with the relationship between knowledge and colonial power. Orientalism excoriated the academic study of an undefinable "Orient" that encouraged the reification of stereotypes in existence since classical antiquity--stereotypes that in turn marked the conception of the Islamic world in an equally ill-defined "Occident" and played into political machinations for colonial expansion. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.