Cross-cultural Commonalities in Therapy and Healing: Theoretical Issues and Psychological and Sociocultural Principles
Jefferson M. Fish
St. John's University
New York City
Let us imagine how a modem university hospital might look to anthropologists from Mars studying healing shrines in an industrialized society. They would learn that the local medical school is reputed to be a site of amazing cures ... certain areas were open to the public and other areas ... were reserved exclusively for the performance of arcane healing rituals ... These special-purpose rooms contain spectacular machines ... Those who tend and control these machines speak a special language that is unintelligible to the layperson and prominently display on their person healing amulets and charms ... The operating rooms are the holy of holies ... So jealously guarded are the mysteries of the operating room that patients are rendered unconscious before they are allowed to enter them.
In evaluating the reports of the cures that occur in such a shrine, anthropologists might be as impressed with the features that mobilize the patient's expectant faith as with the staff's rationale for the treatments administered.
—Jerome D. Frank and Julia B. Frank, (Persuasion and Healing, 1991, pp.108-109)
A cross-cultural perspective requires us to ask fundamental questions about the nature of psychology. In this case, in order to discuss cross-cultural commonalties in therapy and healing, we must first make a distinction between psychological processes and psychological content, so that we know what we are looking for.
If psychology is the science of behavior, then—at least with regard to our own species—it aims at making generalizations about the behavior of all human beings. For this reason, the anthropologist George Peter Murdock suggested that it is the function of psychology to describe behavioral processes and of anthropology to describe the cultural conditions under which those processes lead to different forms of behavior (Murdock, 1972). Another way of putting this would be to say that psychology describes the processes, and anthropology fills in the content.
Issues of culture need to be taken into account, however, even when studying such presumably universal human processes as perception, cognition, or learning. For example, in the course of formal education, children learn to think in different ways, and psychologists can study those thought processes. But in cultures that have no schools—the condition of all of our species for the first 95 percent of its existence, and