Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

‘Freud’s Speculations in Ethnology’: A Reflection on Anthropology’s Encounter with Psychoanalysis

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

‘Freud’s Speculations in Ethnology’: A Reflection on Anthropology’s Encounter with Psychoanalysis

Article excerpt


In February 1924, Ernest Jones - at that time President of the International Psycho-Analytical Association - gave a speech at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, on the topic of 'Psycho-Analysis and Anthropology.' He was gratified, he told the assembly, at the invitation to explain the "unflattering" doctrines of psychoanalysis to an audience with shared interests. "The similarity of the data investigated by anthropologists and psychoanalysts is often so striking and unexpected as positively to call out for explanation," he said (1924, p. 48). "In these circumstances, the two can only profitably approach each other in a spirit of mutual benevolence and co-operate together in their work until they are a both superseded by a race of anthropologists who are experienced in field-work and also trained in the methods of modern psychology" (1924, p. 47).

A collaboration between anthropology and psychoanalysis seemed natural at the time. Each discipline is, in its own way, a science of the 'irrational,' an attempt to make sense of an inexplicable Other. Little Hans' terror of horses (Freud, 1909) and the Trobriand Islander's fear of sexual sorcery (Malinowski, 1927) both, to borrow Jones' phrase, "call out for explanation." Jones was confident that the two disciplines would reinforce each other as their methods and interpretations became increasingly sophisticated. That has - for a variety of historical and theoretical reasons - not been the case. Anthropology's flirtation with psychoanalysis was brief, ending in personal acrimony and a dispute over the primacy of the Oedipus complex. In the intervening decades anthropologists have largely maintained their distance, casting a wary eye at the descendants of the Freudian enterprise. This paper traces the three events that framed cultural anthropology's initial encounter with psychoanalysis - the major actors, the major works, and the critical response - in order to determine how the current impasse came about, and to suggest some future directions for engagement.

The story begins, as psychoanalytical stories invariably do, with Sigmund Freud, whose Totem and Taboo (1950 [1913]) represented psychoanalysts' first and most audacious foray into cultural anthropology. Freud patiently and methodically derived the origins of human culture - religion, social organization, and material inventions included - from an act of primal patricide. By placing this original Oedipal act at the beginning of history, Freud made a claim of intellectual primacy for psychoanalysis and began a long-standing debate regarding the universal nature of psychology and the relativity of culture.

A decade later the father of modern ethnography, Bronislaw Malinowski, would explore Freud's 'speculations' in the wake of his three voyages to the islands of New Guinea. Malinowski, caught up in his own Oedipal trials, made an almost Scholastic effort to synthesize cultural particularism and Freudian psychology. He believed he had discovered a new psychological complex unique to the organization of a matriarchal society. His efforts had the misfortune of crashing upon the shoals of Ernest Jones' uncompromising dogmatism. The dispute between the two put an end to the initial era of collaboration and contributed to the anthropological dogma - still current - that Freud had been disproven by the ethnographers (Spiro, 2010, p. 1). Later attempts to counter Malinowski's conclusions by demonstrating the universal nature of the unconscious (Róheim, 1947) would fall on deaf ears.

The last chapter of this encounter is the story of the rise and fall of the "culture and personality" school associated with the anthropological luminaries Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Historians of anthropology tend to see this school as an extension of psychoanalysis into the domain of culture studies (see, e.g., McGee and Warms, 2011; Brettell, 2014). The culture and personality theorists, however, based their framework on gestalt psychology and behaviorism - George Devereux (1978, p. …

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