by Tanya Marie Luhrmann

This guest post is part of a series published in conjunction with the meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington DC. UC Press authors share insight into their research and stories that reflect this year’s conference theme “Producing Anthropology.” We hope these personal glimpses into their scholarship will inspire a broad community of readers. Come back for new posts every day between now and December 5th.

aaaI began to study psychiatric illness when the dominant mode of psychiatry anthropology was critical. Psychiatry itself had gone biomedical and anthropologists often found themselves on the sidelines, maybe speaking truth to power but often feeling powerless themselves as the great bulldozer of a universalizing science flattened out any apparent cultural differences as so much noise.

That’s changed. Psychiatric science has learned—epidemiologically, empirically, and quantitatively—that our social world makes a difference to our bodies. In recent years psychiatric disorders have become less culture-free, less biological, if by “biological” we mean that they are understood to arise only from our genes and to unfold independently from our social world. Increasingly we know that our genes interact with our environment and that it is the epigenetic interaction that results which so deeply shapes our lives. This is true even of our most terrible madness. In the case of schizophrenia, we now have direct evidence that people are more likely to fall ill with schizophrenia in some social settings than in others, and more likely to recover in some social settings than in others. We know from the empirical research carried out by the new social epidemiology that something about the social world gets under the skin. The puzzle is to figure out what it is.

There is a new role for anthropology in the science of psychiatric illness. The highly structured, specific-variable analytic methods of standard psychiatric science cannot tell us what it is about culture that has impact.  Anthropology can. At least, the careful observation enabled by rich ethnography allows us to ask in more detail what kinds of social and cultural features may make a difference to a life. That gives careful, subtle, precise ethnography a place at the scientific table it has not had for years. It’s a great opportunity.

Tanya Marie Luhrmann is the Watkins University Professor in the Stanford Anthropology Department. Her most recent book, When God Talks Back, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year. At the University of California Press, she edits the Ethnographic Studies in Subjectivity series.


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