The concept of mental disorder has often played a pivotal role in the development of new sociological theories of meaning, ranging from Goffman’s (1963) role theory and Scheff’s (1966;1975) labeling theory to Foucault’s (1965;1978) genealogies and various social control theories (Horwitz 1982;1990). I believe that this concept might be similarly pivotal in creating an account of cognition that encompasses both universalist and social foundations of cognition. In this chapter, I use the concept of mental disorder to illustrate and explore the distinction between universal and social elements in cognition. I start by using some passages from Eviatar Zerubaval’s (1997) book, Social Mindscapes, to pose the problem of distinguishing the social from the universal and to illustrate how difficult the distinction can sometimes be. Then I present an analysis of the concept of mental disorder as “harmful mental dysfunction,” based on earlier work of mine (Wakefield 1992a;1992b;1993). I examine my analysis of mental disorder with the issue of the universal versus the social in mind, hopefully drawing some lessons that might be helpful in illuminating the broader conceptual challenges facing sociologists of culture and cognition.
In the last lines of his seminal book, Social Mindscapes, Eviatar Zerubavel suggests that sociological explanations of cognition must be integrated with explanations in