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Anthropology of Mental Health

Mental illness and wellbeing have been defined and treated in dramatically different ways across cultures and historical epochs. In this course we engage with religious and secular diagnostic traditions, and the ways in which these forms of knowledge shape the experience and understanding of “unreason”. We examine the emergence of modern diagnostic categories such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia, and debates on changing perceptions of the normal and the pathological. Drawing on anthropology, psychiatry, philosophy, literature and cinema, we follow the emergence, translation and critique of diagnostic categories across different parts of the contemporary world.

We begin with a canonical “history of madness” by Michel Foucault, which sets out key discursive shifts that led to contemporary formations of medical knowledge and power. We take up longstanding debates on whether or not psychiatric categories are inherently western, as well as anthropological attempts to understand the ways in which such categories are translated and deployed in new cultural contexts. We engage with traditions of spiritual healing and the ways in which such traditions remain alive in the contemporary world. We read classic ethnographies of mental illness and closely examine three conditions of local and global significance – addiction, depression, and schizophrenia, placed within the wider contention that mental health/illness may be one of the most urgent albeit elusive and shape-shifting crises in the contemporary world. This course aims to introduce students to anthropological approaches to mental health that critically engage with varied concepts of psychic distress, the actual experiences of patients and caregivers, and the instability of the idea of the normal.

Study at Ashoka

Study at Ashoka