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Is the Oedipus Complex Universal?

Anthropology versus Psychoanalysis?

Text by Lea Hensch (Freie Universität Berlin)

Art by Pablo Dohms

The following essay addresses the question of why the century-old debate on the universality of the Oedipus complex still leads to tensions and hinders interdisciplinary cooperation between psychoanalysis and social and cultural anthropology in the 21st century. Particularly compelling is the way in which this debate not only organizes the relationship between the two disciplines but also serves as an important example of the debates over psychoanalytic theorising.

Prompted by Sigmund Freud and driven by the "Malinowski-Jones debate", this particular debate is less about scientific interest in the question of the universality of the Oedipus complex and more about identity, ideology, theoretical positions, and scientific credibility. The debates over the universal nature of psychology and the relativity of culture are fuelled by fundamental disciplinary differences regarding the primacy of sociological factors. The universal nature of psychology and the relativity of culture are debated, and differences exist between the two disciplines regarding the primacy of sociological factors, with each side adopting a defensive or rather defensive posture. The goal of this essay is to identify and analyse the underlying sources of tension, as active engagement with the causes of conflict is fundamental to establishing successful interdisciplinary collaboration.


The relationship between anthropology and psychoanalysis has long been tainted with disagreement. Initial interaction between the fields can be attributed to Sigmund Freud and his assumption that the Oedipus complex is a universal phenomenon. Freud made the first attempt to interpret ethnographic findings psychoanalytically in his famous work Totem and Taboo (1913), which was the psychoanalysts' first and perhaps boldest foray into cultural anthropology[1]. In his work, he postulates the universality of the Oedipus complex and sees the origins of human culture and civilization in it. He placed the Oedipus complex at the beginning of the history of mankind and thus claimed the intellectual primacy of psychoanalysis. Freud thereby sparked a long-standing and still ongoing debate between psychoanalysis and anthropology over the universal nature of psychology and the relativity of culture. The controversy not only organized the relationship between the two disciplines but can also be seen as an important example of engagement with psychoanalytic theorizing (Rivera 2017, 756-758; Smadja 2011, 987; Hörter 2011, 121; Strauss 2015, 359). Moreover, the way anthropology understands the Oedipus complex in particular is a good example of how it understands or has understood psychoanalysis in general. Therefore, a reconsideration of the debate between the two disciplines, which is characterized by mistrust, misunderstanding, and defensiveness, is of great importance. Only when the underlying conflicts, which still exist today, are made visible, understood and overcome, can successful interdisciplinary collaboration succeed (Smadja 2011, 985).

The Oedipus Complex after Freud

The Oedipus complex can be understood in a simplified way as an organized set of hostile and affectionate desires that the child experiences towards its parents. In the form originally described, the positive form was emphasized. Meaning there is a sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex and a feeling of rivalry toward the parent of the same sex. In contrast, the negative form involves sexual attraction to the same-sex parent and a feeling of jealousy toward the parent of the opposite sex. According to Freund, the Oedipus complex is a crucial stage in the normal developmental process and is considered to be the pinnacle of infantile sexuality. When adult sexuality is reached, overcoming the complex is necessary for normality. In contrast, an unconscious clinging to Oedipal tendencies is typical of the neurotic mind, at least according to Freud (Bhugra& Bhui 2002, 69-71; Encyclopaedia Britannica 2018).

Positions from Psychoanalysis and Social and Cultural Anthropology

Although Freud initiated the interdisciplinary dialogue, it was Bronislaw Malinowski who picked up the pace of the controversy and set the course for all future relations with psychoanalysis. Malinowski was the first ethnologist to attempt to verify the Freudian theory by means of field research. He did this through observations on the Trobriand Islands and investigating the question of whether the Oedipus complex could be transferred to other cultures. His findings led him to argue that an avuncular and not an Oedipal complex existed on the Trobriand Islands. As a result, he claimed that the Oedipal complex was only one of several possible “core complexes” (Münsterberger 1972, 145). According to Malinowski, the “core complex” changes with the socially constructed form of family organization, which means that the Oedipus complex cannot be universal, but is a culturally constructed phenomenon (Rivera 2017, 755; Barratt 2019, 11; Smadja 2011, 988). Thus, Malinowski invalidated the central psychoanalytic thesis of the universality of the Oedipus complex, at the same time as discovering and establishing cultural relativism.

The psychoanalyst Ernest Jones criticized Malinowski’s theses, thereby triggering the famous “Malinowski-Jones debate” in the 1920s, in which the theoretical differences between psychoanalysis and anthropology can be found, still unresolved to this day. Jones defended the classical psychoanalytic viewpoint of the universality of the Oedipus complex and understood it as fons et origo. For Malinowski, on the other hand, the complex was dependent on the structure and culture of a society. If both lines of argumentation are contrasted by way of example, it becomes clear that a psychoanalytic or essentialist perspective meets a social anthropological or constructivist perspective, and each side assumes a defensive stance. At the heart of the conflict is the primacy of the Oedipus complex and the question: do different cultures produce fundamentally different psychologies or does a universal psychology create the framework for cultural variabilities? (Parsons 2010, 131-132; Bhugra& Bhui 2002, 81; Hörter 2011, 112-115; Rivera 2017, 766). After the controversy with Jones, Malinowski gave up psychoanalysis, as did most other British anthropologists. A few years later, anthropologist Géza Róheim attempted to conduct research at the methodological intersection of psychoanalysis and anthropology to refute Malinowski’s thesis. He too recognized that the underlying conflict revolved around the universal nature of the unconscious. However, anthropologists’ interest in psychoanalysis had declined so drastically that Róheim’s work received little attention, and other topics were favoured. “Psychological anthropology” became a minor subdiscipline (Rivera 2017, 756).

From a historiographical perspective, psychoanalysis had one last major encounter with cultural anthropology between the 1930s and 1960s in the field of "culture and personality studies" in US-American anthropology. The new field included the so-called "neo-Freudian" psychoanalysts who attempted to refute the theories of Freud. Abram Kardiner, in particular, succeeded in crossing disciplinary boundaries in his work. Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Cora DuBois and Edward Sapir also strove to establish a disciplinary relationship with psychoanalysis. Nevertheless, the differences between psychoanalysis and anthropology remained with regard to the precedence of sociological factors (Strauss 2015, 359; Frie 2014, 376-377; Smadja 2011, 991). Then, as "culture and personality studies" were abandoned in the 1960s, many anthropologists assumed that psychoanalysis had also been discredited, and collaboration ended in a dispute over the universality of the Oedipus complex. This narrative continues to shape the historiography of the discipline and its rejection of psychoanalytic theory (Rivera 2017, 755). But, of course, not all anthropologists abandoned psychoanalysis. Georges Devereux for instance, succeeded in establishing a complementary relationship between the two disciplines, basing the relationship in particular on the unity of culture and the human psyche. As a result, two new disciplines emerged: complementary ethnopsychoanalysis and ethnopsychiatry (Smadja 2011, 991). Another anthropologist who attempted to combine both disciplines in one research is Anne Parson. In her essay "Is the Oedipus complex universal?" (1964), she denies the universality of the Oedipus complex and instead describes another "core complex" in southern Italy (Parsons 1964). Her essay is interesting for the present paper, because reviews of her research, such as Marvin Opler's, note that in 1964 it was already a well-settled and outdated debate. Nevertheless, the topic seems to play a leading role in the relationship between anthropology and psychoanalysis and is taken up again and again (Opler 1970, 866; Münsterberger 1972, 145). This was also the case with the anthropologist Melford Spiro, who in 1982 reviewed the data from the Trobriands and criticized Malinowski for his flawed result, postulating the universality of the Oedipus complex (Strathern 1995, 177-178).

Even in the 21st century, the question of the universality of the Oedipus complex is a topic that links anthropology and psychoanalytics. As an example, the text by Bhugra and Bhui, “Is the Oedipal complex universal? Problems for sexual and relationship psychotherapy across cultures” (2002) can be cited. It describes how the concept of the Oedipal complex is dependent on people, communities and forms of therapy and includes ethnographic examples from India and Sri Lanka (Bhugra and Bhui 2002). At this point, the question can be asked why still, almost 100 years after the Malinowski-Jones debate, anthropologists and psychoanalysts still dispute the universality of the Oedipus complex. Is the subject matter itself so significant, or do the causes of the conflict lie in entirely different areas?

The Causes of the Conflict Between the two Disciplines

According to the anthropologist Rivera, if one examines the relationship and interaction between the two disciplines more closely, three causes of conflict emerge. In his view, these conflicts will continue to manifest themselves in resistance to psychoanalytic theory, making active engagement with the causes of conflict seem essential.

The first conflict concerns the tension between the universal unconscious and cultural variability, the central theoretical impasse between the two disciplines (Rivera 2017, 773). This is similarly articulated by Eric Smadja, who sees the distinction between universality and relativity as an aspect that is central to the conflicted relationship between the two disciplines. However, this distinction serves less scientific than ideological and identity-related interests (Smadja 2011, 1001). Another cause of conflict is that psychoanalysis presents a biological dimension through the discovery of the Oedipus complex, which was considered universal and the place of origin for human civilization and culture. In addition, biologism does not take into account sociocultural factors in Freudian theory, which for many anthropologists represents psychoanalysis as a whole. Not only that, Freud's assumptions about the Oedipus complex are criticized as evolutionist, ahistorical, and Eurocentric. Why anthropology adopts such a defensive stance against the psychoanalytic thesis of the universality of "human nature" theory must be explained historically.

At that time anthropology was in a state of flux, discovering the importance of sociocultural factors and demonstrating how they can influence and shape "human nature." Cultural relativism, with its ideas of cultural diversity and singularity, became the discipline's new identity marker. At the same time, anthropology distinguished itself from its first theoretical approach evolutionism, which posited amongst others the unity of the human mind. In some ways, psychoanalysis seemed too reminiscent of this way of thinking, further distancing anthropology from psychoanalysis. Moreover, agreeing with the universality of the Oedipus complex would mean falling back into the evolutionist position from which the "new" anthropology around the mid-20th century and earlier wanted to distance itself (Smadja 2011, 994-996; Hörter 2011, 118). A similar opinion is expressed by Rivera, who believes that anthropology projects ethnocentrism and colonialism onto psychoanalysis. Whereas he too recognizes that the scientific argument about universal subconscious processes has a far more relevant ethical and emotional side. Anthropology has long been linked to imperial violence and scientific racism, with the resulting sense of guilt continuing to be a powerful driving force behind anthropology's theoretical commitments. Cultural relativism was a reaction to this legacy and was intended to erase the sin of anthropology. In contrast, universalizing theories became associated with evolutionism, ethnocentrism, and colonialism. In this regard, Patrick Rivera sees anthropology's resistance to psychoanalysis as the result of a reaction formation that arose from historical guilt (Rivera 2017, 773).

Moreover, the defensiveness of both disciplines is reminiscent of Georges Devereux's concept of anxiety[2], which is of considerable importance for exploring and understanding the areas of convergence between the two human science disciplines. According to Devereux, during their observations, both psychoanalysts and anthropologists are inevitably exposed, to materials that trigger or can trigger anxiety. Through anxiety, defense mechanisms are mobilized, which are a source of distortion of that same material. Sources of distortion include the personality of the investigator, the cultural models to which he or she belongs, his or her social background, and the classification and interpretation of his or her material.

One of the main causes of fear results from identification movements with other people and the Other, such as the anthropologist or the psychoanalyst. By sharing cross-disciplinary approaches such as indirect self-observation or the ability to take both the position of the subject and the object in observation, there is some overlap between the two disciplines. This may lead to an increased mobilization of defense mechanisms. In this context, Devereux mentions especially the “professional” defense mechanisms, such as methodological positions or technical procedures, which have the goal of creating a certain protective distance. There is an attempt to exaggerate the difference between oneself and the Other by searching for the unique and special. According to Devereux, this is the reason why anthropology attributes a “special” psychology to ethnic groups and is critical of the psychological unity of humanity (Smadja 2011, 1003- 1004).

Although Devereux's explanatory approach is interesting, I would not argue that anthropology attributes a "unique" psychology to ethnic groups purely because of the defensiveness Devereux describes, but rather for the reasons which were given earlier. By critically reflecting on the evolutionist approach and colonialism and especially by recognizing that sociocultural factors significantly influence and shape “human nature”, whereby this new 'reading' of culture was further developed and resulted in cultural relativism. Moreover, it would be interesting to turn the assertion around and ask why psychoanalysis ascribes a universal psychology to humanity. Is it purely as a defensive measure or is there more behind it?

The final cause of conflict cited in the literature is the lack of familiarity. Anthropologists' understanding of psychoanalysis is based on historical events, social theorists, and references, but not on clinical practice, the specific terrain of psychoanalysts. According to Rivera, this leads to Freud's ideas and psychoanalysis in general often being portrayed negatively and tainted with prejudice (Rivera 2017, 754). The anthropologist Vieda Skultans (1993)has a similar view. According to him, psychoanalysts and anthropologists are at the universalist or relativist pole, where a familiarity with context is central to the making of meaning. Obviously, the greater the familiarity with the social context, the greater the conviction that the translation conveys. Therefore, the lack of familiarity and insistence in on one's point of view can be seen as a cause of conflict (Bhugra& Bhui 2002, 82).


In summary, at the heart of the conflict are a theoretical opposition, an unconscious defense, and a lack of mutual understanding (Rivera 2017, 755). While these continue to be barriers to collaboration the question remains: Where do we go from here? What can be drawn from this essay? I would argue that scholarly interest in the question of the universality of the Oedipus complex is not at the forefront of the conflict. Rather, the conflict revolves around identity-related and ideological issues. To put it very simply, if anthropology (at least at the time of the climax of the conflict) bases its identity and theories on cultural relativism and psychoanalysis on universalism, then the opposing position cannot be given justice. This would mean that the core values of the respective discipline, on which theories, methods, and assumptions are based, would be abandoned. At the same time, the discipline could lose credibility. Thus, the conflict is not primarily about the universality of the Oedipus complex, but about identity, ideology, theoretical positions, and scientific credibility. In this sense, the essay deliberately does not answer the question of the universality of the unconscious, because it is time that the conflict between anthropology and psychoanalysis, which has existed for almost 100 years, be overcome. This article aims to contribute to this by identifying the underlying sources of tension. It is now up to both disciplines to overcome the legacy of hostility and mistrust and establish a long-term and productive collaboration. In this context, for instance, the anthropologist and psychoanalyst Douglas Hollan can be mentioned as a role model who has been significantly promoting interdisciplinary cooperation between the two disciplines since the 1990s. I sincerely hope that other scientists will follow his example and that more interdisciplinary dialogues will be conducted which will then lead to new, innovative and interesting research projects and approaches.


[1] Freud himself understood it as "the first attempt on my part to apply points of view and results of psychoanalysis to unsolved problems of folk psychology" (Freud 1912-13, 291 quoted after Hörte 2011: 94) (Quote translated from German by the author). [2] Devereux describes the concept in more detail in his book “From Anxiety to Method in the Behavioural Sciences” (1967).


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