In the Journals

Special issue of Ethos on “Reinvigorating Dialogue between Phenomenological and Psychoanalytic Anthropologies”

The latest issue of Ethos, guest edited by Sarah Willen and Don Seeman, brings together the phenomenological and psychoanalytic approaches in the anthropology of experience — making an argument for a closer engagement between these two modes of conceptualizing subjectivity.  The idea that this represents a moment of conceptual reorientation is most clearly articulated by Byron Good’s reflection on his own earlier commitments to a cultural phenomenology (on this see his Medicine, Rationality and Experience).  In his contribution to this special issue, Good writes:

“Despite these strengths of the phenomenological tradition, I have increasingly come to feel that cultural phenomenology provides a profoundly inadequate basis for a theory of subjectivity. “Experience,” in that tradition, begins as a neo-Kantian structuring of the sensorium and moves outward, in its anthropological reading, to cultural interpretations of sense experience and intersubjective worlds. But to my current thinking, cultural phenomenology fails to theorize and bring analytic attention to two strands of experience which are at the heart of recent work on subjectivity—complex psychological experiences most often associated with diverse forms of psychoanalysis, and political subjectivity, those aspects of subjectivity shaped by repressive and hegemonic political and administrative structures, gender ideologies, and histories of violence that constitute the “natural gaze” of the political order and political realities. It is difficult to find serious phenomenological accounts of psychologically oriented life histories, of how primary, developmental attachments and relationships structure an individual’s inner life over time, of how these—often unbeknownst to each individual—shape what is experienced as real. In essence, this tradition leaves ethnographers without a fully articulated psychology, and increasingly I find understandings of subjectivity absent a complex psychology inadequate and of limited value.

But it is not only the absence of what I am gesturing toward as a fully articulated psychology that limits phenomenology as a theory of subjectivity—there is obviously a long tradition of linking phenomenology with psychoanalysis to provide such a psychology, with Edward Sapir, culture and personality theorists, and Hallowell himself serving as exemplars. It is also the absence of an explicit theorization of the political and limited theoretical grounds for linking individual psychology to social, historical, and political processes that serves to divide most cultural phenomenologies of the self from a wide range of current theorizations of subjectivity,” (Good 2012).

Good has discussed this general shift in conceptual orientation in his 2010 Marett Lecture and in a biographical interview from the same year, and the same set of concerns animates Postcolonial Disorders, a volume which he co-edited with Mary-Jo DelVecchio DelVecchio Good, Sandra Hyde and Sarah Pinto.  This special issue brings to the discussion many other scholars whose work has been seminal in either the phenomenological or psychoanalytic tradition of anthropology.


Sarah S. Willen, Don Seeman, Introduction: Experience and Inquiétude

In recent decades, human experience has become focus or frame for a wide variety of projects in psychological anthropology and beyond. Like “culture,” which it arguably seeks to either qualify or displace, the concept of “experience” has generated its own interpretive literature, competing schools of analysis, and internal resistances. We propose that the anthropology of experience has achieved a degree of recognition and maturity that renders genealogical reflection, stocktaking, and agenda setting both possible and necessary. Although the anthropology of experience, like experience itself, does not (and perhaps should not) lend itself to easy definition as a singular or unified theoretical paradigm, it does involve a fluid constellation of themes shared by what are traditionally regarded as parallel or divergent lines of inquiry: what might be glossed imperfectly as the phenomenological and psychoanalytic schools within sociocultural anthropology. Here we aim neither for naïve synthesis nor a mathematical sum of parts, but for more adequate ways of depicting and making sense of what Dewey calls “the inclusive integrity of ‘experience.’” This will require more concerted attention to the sources of ethnographic inquiétude—the gaps, silences, limits, and opacities—that either preoccupy or remain overlooked within both traditions.


Byron J. Good, Phenomenology, Psychoanalysis, and Subjectivity in Java

This essay outlines the evolution of my personal thinking about phenomenology and subjectivity. In previous work, I drew heavily on cultural phenomenology for studying illness, subjective experience, and medical knowledge across cultures. Here I describe why I have become increasingly dissatisfied with this framework for understanding subjectivity and the subject and suggest alternatives I consider important for psychological anthropology. I focus in particular on questions of how to investigate that which is largely unspeakable and unspoken in everyday speech but at times erupts into awareness as complex specters haunting the present. I provide a case from my ongoing research in Java of a young man who suffered an acute psychosis, drawing implications for a theory of subjectivity and methods for psychological anthropology. I point briefly to the relation of madness and memories of political violence as sites for investigating subjectivity, suggesting the importance of a “hauntology” for psychological anthropology. Finally, I address questions about whether a method that addresses hidden aspects of psychological experience requires a stance in which ethnographers “know better than” those with whom they are interacting.


Douglas Hollan, On the Varieties and Particularities of Cultural Experience

I argue that certain varieties of psychoanalysis and cultural phenomenology are not antithetical, and that indeed, their respective foci and methodologies each have strengths that balance out the other’s limitations. Put more strongly, the two perspectives need one another. Experience should not be reduced to solipsism, nor should specific individuals, each marked by their own “pinch of destiny” and experiential heaviness, be lost in the haze of ever receding future horizons. The unfolding of self-awareness and experience is indeed an autopoietic, recursive process whose complexities surely escape any single perspective.


Thomas J. Csordas, Psychoanalysis and Phenomenology

If psychoanalysis and phenomenology are thoroughgoing, comprehensive, and complementary accounts of subjectivity, anthropological analyses of subjectivity can benefit from them both as well as from the dialogue between them. In the first part of this article I present and elaborate a preliminary outline of conceptual correspondences between phenomenology and psychoanalysis. These are pairs of ideas that seem intuitively to “go together” on either a parallel level of analysis or in terms of the role they play within the broader intellectual movement. In the second part I call attention to a preexisting body of work that explores the relation between psychoanalysis and phenomenology. This is work in phenomenological or existential psychiatry that developed sometimes as a synthesis of the two fields, and sometimes as a critique of and alternative to psychoanalysis. I conclude by suggesting that anthropology is a field sufficiently fertile for such a cross-pollinated mode of thinking to take root.


C. Jason Throop, On Inaccessibility and Vulnerability: Some Horizons of Compatibility between Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis

In this article I examine the relationship between psychodynamic and phenomenological accounts of subjective experience. In so doing, my goal is not to displace the integrity of either phenomenology or psychoanalysis as historically, theoretically, and practically unique traditions in the human sciences and philosophy. It is instead to propose that a distinctly anthropological application and extension of phenomenology articulated in the context of the ethnographic encounter may reveal new points of contact between them.


Robert Desjarlais, Commentary: Redescriptions

In this comment I consider the generative tensions between phenomenological and psychodynamic approaches in anthropology. I propose several reasons for the recent interest in phenomenological perspectives, and suggest several ways that there might be a productive interplay between the two approaches.


Ellen Corin, Commentary: Interdisciplinary Dialogue: A Site of Estrangement

In this article I address two broad questions: how can we best imagine a dialogue between psychoanalysis and anthropology in relation to subjectivity? And which are key elements of a psychoanalytic approach that have the potential to challenge anthropology and open interesting avenues of collaboration? In relation to the first question, I contend that dialogue has to take place not at border zones but between the most specific and conceptually advanced topics in each discipline. Building on French psychoanalysis, I emphasize several points: a dynamic notion of the Unconscious conceived as a field of struggle among competing forces, implying that the Subject is divided and nontransparent; the notion of Kulturarbeit conceived by Freud as a work of transformation of basic human drives that operates together at the individual and at the collective levels, inviting a revision of the status of culture in psychoanalysis; and an interpretative stance that builds on free associations and floating attention and operates in decomposing the apparent coherence and rationality of discourse. I present anthropology and psychoanalysis as sharing an interest in the “site of the stranger” and in the destabilizing power of Otherness. Their dialogue reveals additional textures both in ethnography and in psychoanalytic concepts.


Michael D. Jackson, Commentary: The Complementarity of Intrapsychic and Intersubjective Dimensions of Social Reality

This comment revisits the pioneering work of George Devereux in arguing for a reintegration of ethnographic and psychological perspectives in anthropology. The focus is not on an epistemological fusion of these different perspectives but on methodological strategies whose measure of value may be practical, aesthetic, or interpretive, depending on the researcher’s interests and the research subject’s own concerns.

2 replies on “Special issue of Ethos on “Reinvigorating Dialogue between Phenomenological and Psychoanalytic Anthropologies””

Very good issue. I remember reading an interesting reference to Good’s 2010 Marett Lecture in an article about prayer and health:

“Rethinking Prayer and Health Research: An Exploratory Inquiry on Prayer’s Psychological Dimension”.

International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, Vol. 30, Nos. 1-2, pp. 23-47, 2011

Many thanks for featuring the special issue! We’re so glad that Somatosphere has taken interest in the collection and hope readers will find it thought-provoking and useful.

Comments are closed.