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Culture and Psychopathology

The Anthropology of Mental Illness

Georgi Onchev

The book sets itself the ambitious task of exploring the relationship between human culture and the phenomenon of mental illness, that which has embarrassed, fascinated, and challenged educated minds throughout the centuries. Various manifestations of this phenomenon are examined in specific cultural contexts, presented with notable competence, and illustrated with memorable descriptions of clinical cases. (…) The book and its author have many merits—the capacity to present a highly specialized subject in an intelligible, absorbing, and simultaneously profound manner; respectable erudition and academic self-discipline; and the notable skill of handling different domains of knowledge, among others. The most remarkable quality, however, is the author’s concern both for the reader—who is carefully led into quite unknown and still frightening territory—as well as for his protagonists, the mentally ill. All told, I believe that this book will be of interest not just to students of psychiatry, psychology, and anthropology, but also to a broader circle of readers who are excited by the wretched and admirable destiny of being human.

Haralan Alexandrov

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2 Culture: Essence and Dimensions


Although changed, I arise the same (Eadem mutato resurgo)

Words of the Spiral, by J. Bernoulli

Culture is social heredity. Apart from a plethora of academic definitions, the preservation of human experience is culture’s basic feature. It is a system of shared meanings for the interpretation of this experience with the ultimate goal of survival and confidence. Societal DNA spares the necessity of each new generation re-inventing the rules for living; instead, they can absorb them from their ancestors, thus saving energy for development. As the great 4th-century Arab physician Rhazes writes, the experience of one person compared to everyone from all the ages, resembles “a trickle of water, flowing into a big river”.14 Culture protects against the loss of objects and anxiety in the face of the unknown, much like the presence of parents calms a baby in the dark. It creates, for a group of people, a collective system of rules that encompasses attitudes, beliefs, values, and norms shared by all members, ensuring their survival and being passed from generation to generation. For this reason, cultural traits remain stable over time. Though the potential for change exists, these traits are part of an essentially conservative system with an evolutionary sense which imposes a slow pace of change, never altering the basic aspects of the system. The modern era, however, has accelerated this speed (Chapter 13) and, thence, culture undergoes changes and arises the same.

In his Histories, Herodotus220 describes...

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