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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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7 Spirit Possession States


The Devil inside us (Içimizdeki Şeytan).

S. Ali

The experience of possession by spirits or other supernatural forces is part of the heritage of different civilizations and is rooted in numerous religious traditions and cults. It occurs in various states, and explanations for it vacillate between hysteria, charlatanism, schizophrenia, and “brainwashing”. These conditions are integral to the interweaving of cultural models and psychopathology, and their interpretation is a test for hypotheses in this area. Such interweaving and its interpretation are illustrated here through the analysis of clinical cases from two very different cultures: Swahili and Bulgarian.

Possession states are a challenge to clinical psychiatry. First of all, the distinction between normative and pathological possession remains vague. Besides, the pathological type’s nosological status is also unclear. These states are usually conceptualized as unique culture-specific syndromes or as varieties of dissociative disorders. In the latter case, possession experience in the Third World is pointed out as analogous to multiple personality disorder in developed countries.188 Claims that these states represent a separate clinical entity1 appear debatable in the context of a two-year follow up of patients with dissociative disorders in India which does not identify dissociative sub-categories related to identity disturbances, trance, and possession.3 This is similar to the situation of possession’s Western “twin”, multiple personality disorder:134 while some doubt its existence in general, accusing media and psychoanalytical culture of stimulating behaviors that resemble identity change,188 others recognize it frequently and even...

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