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Towards a more Anthropological Psychoanalysis and a Psychoanalytic Anthropology

Text by Beatriz Cerqueira Krieger (Free University Berlin)

© Lena Bünger

The histories of psychoanalysis and anthropology have for their largest part developed concomitantly, moving away from and closer to each other from time to time. In his article “What is Cultural Psychoanalysis? Psychoanalytic Anthropology and the Interpersonal Tradition” (2014), the philosopher, psychologist and psychoanalyst Roger Frie offers an enlightening overview of this historical exchange between the two areas of study. Drawing on his arguments on the contribution of anthropology and the question of culture to psychoanalysis, in the present essay I attempt to point out one further aspect in which anthropology can contribute to psychoanalysis. In turn, I will also call attention to two potentials of the psychoanalytic approach in the anthropological work. To support my second endeavor, I will also resort to Douglas Hollan’s (2005) analysis of the importance of Robert I. Levy’s person-centered and open-ended interviewing for ethnographic work.

For both endeavors, I take as a starting point Frie’s following statement: “We are born into cultures that provide us with the tools and means to understand and express ourselves” (Frie 2014: 389). This sentence sums up the interaction between the Western notions of culture and self and hence points to the interdependence of anthropology and psychoanalysis, considering that the first has a stronger concern with culture (the range of practices, discourses and social structures of a given group) and the second with the self (the Western notion of a person, their psyche and the way they experience life and the world). It was the emergence of the so-called interpersonal or cultural psychoanalysis in the late 1930s and early 1940s that questioned for the first time within psychoanalysis the classic Freudian centrality of the intrapsychic phenomena and the sexual drives as the primary cause to all cultural experiences and patterns. Karen Horney, Harry Stack Sullivan and Erich Fromm argued for an emphasis on the cultural and social basis of psychic experiences, personality and neuroses, instead of the biological one defended by Freud (Frie 2014: 372). Having a strong exchange with the anthropological Culture and Personality School, which included Edward Sapir, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict and Abram Kardiner, these interpersonal psychoanalysts recognized that the individual can only construct his/her life within the frame of linguistic, social and aesthetic patterns, whereas s/he has, in turn, the potential to transform them. In that sense, these anthropological and psychoanalytical schools acknowledged the dialectic nature of the relationship between the self and culture.

However, not only did their approach have some weak spots from an anthropological perspective – such as reinforcing some Eurocentric notions –, but their questioning of Freud’s biological assumptions, which seemed to build the basis of psychoanalysis, wasn’t well accepted by the community of classical psychoanalysts. Further, by the 1950s, both anthropology and psychoanalysis were each fighting for legitimation as scientific disciplines, which came at the expense of interdisciplinary dialogue (Frie 2014: 388). Psychoanalysis was especially concerned with being accepted as a medical science, for which the question of culture seemed to be an obstacle and deviation (Manson 1988: 112).

Yet I would argue that it is precisely in the question of culture that lies psychoanalysis’ biggest potential to reaffirm its relevance nowadays. We must acknowledge that psychoanalysis has been strongly delegitimized in many areas, especially in European academia (Heald and Deluz 1994: 6); the incorporation into medicine and biological sciences sought by mid-century was not satisfactorily achieved, often relegating psychoanalysis to a limbo between biology and humanities, Western understandings of science and cult, methodology and art. I suggest that a review of psychoanalysis in the course of time, as well as a conscious approximation to anthropology, might bring back the legitimation to psychoanalysis, while also questioning the notions of what is and what is not scientific. Psychoanalysis might have paid the price for emphasizing on biology, whereas “the human psyche is inherently social, and cannot be reduced to biological drives” (Frie 2014: 385). It is thus precisely at the point where psychoanalysis is, today, most criticized for, namely the historical insistence on sexual drives and its universalism, that anthropology offers an alternative that gives back the credibility that psychoanalysis is constantly fighting for: if psychoanalysts resume the understanding of selfhood as both product and maker of interpersonal processes and resort to anthropological accounts on these processes, they can use the well-established psychoanalytic tools and methods to better investigate personal experiences.

On the other hand, there are at least two important potentials of a psychoanalytic approach within anthropology that have been under-utilized as the two fields distanced from each other. Firstly, drawing on Erich Fromm’s account, I suggest that psychoanalysis opens up the possibility to investigate the psychic effects of oppression both on individuals and communities and think of effective ways of resistance. Fromm writes about how individuals are led to play certain roles that a society considers functional and productive and that they feel the “wanting to act as they have to act” (Fromm 1955: 77, emphasis in original). Nevertheless, this feeling might mean the repression of other personal needs and desires, thus harming one’s emotional well-being. He clearly stated that social conformism, i.e. adapting to the oppressive norms, does not avoid conflict and emotional stress, but leads to neuroses and other pathologies. Instead, he suggests that revealing these unconscious social pressures and resisting to social adaption is the way for maintaining mental health (Frie 2014: 383). This approach allows anthropologists to better understand what unconscious forces are acting upon people and how, what roles persons are led to play, what functions they have in society and what effects they have on those who play them, hence revealing more of culture, its discourses, and practices. Moreover, Fromm’s belief of the individual’s potential to change these structures opens up the space for anthropologists to think, together with their informants, of strategies to reveal and resist these oppressions.

Secondly, I believe it is crucial that anthropologists acknowledge the “explanatory potential of psychoanalysis” (Frie 2014: 376), which was already appreciated by Alfred Kroeber and Bronislaw Malinowski. While the European tradition of anthropology largely dismissed psychoanalysis for its reductionism to the individual and a supposed lack of scientific rigorousness (Heald and Deluz 1994: 6), it made the mistake of rejecting almost the entirety of psychoanalytic approaches. However, if anthropology recognizes the dialectic relationship between culture and person, it is crucial that anthropologists access the person to better understand culture – for which psychoanalysis offers effective tools. Anthropologists must be able to understand people’s life histories in order to better grasp how culture influenced them and how they influence culture in turn. As Frie suggests: “As a dynamic and participatory process, culture exists only as it is continually reinterpreted by creative personalities” (2014: 379), so that it is clear that a deeper understanding of these personalities paints a more detailed picture of culture.

Various critiques of psychoanalysis from anthropologists reveal that the field is still very much reduced to some of Freud’s maxims and striking concepts, such as the penis envy or the Oedipus complex and the sexism it long entailed, making it easier to dismiss the whole discipline. However, anthropologists should do what they know best nowadays (or at least require the most) and not generalize or reduce psychoanalysis to its common-place stereotypes. A closer and sincere look reveals that psychoanalysis offers rather than an independent science, a methodological approach, “a dominant idiom for the discussion of human personality and of human relations” (Gellner 1985: 5). It is time for anthropologists to set psychoanalysis free of those old Freudian maxims and the supposed obsession on sexuality and childhood and focus on the method that continued to be developed much after him and take advantage of this tool in the anthropological work.

In that sense, a good example is the interview method introduced by Robert I. Levy, namely the open-ended interview, which he used to bring the interviewee to express feelings, behaviors, and understandings that revealed important psychological and possibly collective issues (Hollan 2005: 462). In that type of interview, the researcher amply allows the interviewee to lead the conversation, so that his/her own connections, train of thought, logic and feelings can present themselves. These may reveal both personal and collective patterns, such as morality, desires and how they are allowed or repressed and people’s awareness of it all. Anthropologists can learn from Levy but also from psychoanalysis in a broader sense how to choose and pose this kind of questions the right way at the right time and how to best explore “people’s capacity to reflect on themselves and their experience” (Hollan 2005: 465). In this way, anthropologists can have deeper access to people’s minds, while allowing the informants to actively take part in this process of revealing. Further, if on the one hand, this approach shows some of the deep ways in which culture shapes the psyche, on the other hand, it also renders visible the very limits of culture. In short, it allows deepening in the core questions of anthropology.


Frie, Roger 2014: What is Cultural Psychoanalysis? Psychoanalytic Anthropology and the Interpersonal Tradition. In: Contemporary Psychoanalysis 50 (3), p. 371-394.

Fromm, Erich 1955: The sane society. Greenwich: Fawcett.

Gellner, Ernest 1985: The psychoanalytic movement. London: Paladin.

Heald, Suzette and Ariane Deluz 1994: Anthropology and psychoanalysis: An encounter through culture. London: Routledge.

Hollan, Douglas 2005: Setting a new standard: the person-centered interviewing and observation of Robert I. Levy. In: Ethos 33 (4), p. 459-466.

Manson, William 1988: The psychodynamics of culture: Abram Kardiner and Neo-Freudian anthropology. New York: Greenwood Press.

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