ASA2015 conference panel report: 'Anthropology and psychotherapy'

Author: Laurence Doremus
Date: 01/07/2015

ISSN 2073-4158

The panel ‘Anthropology and Psychotherapy’ at the ASA Conference in Exeter in April 2015 was convened by Aleksander Boscovic (University of Belgrade) and Salma Siddique (University of Aberdeen). The theme of the conference was  ‘Symbiotic anthropologies: theoretical commensalities and methodological mutualisms’.  The panel brought together papers to explore some of the relationships between the two disciplines of anthropology and psychotherapy.

Some papers explored the practice of psychotherapy; Eva van Roekel (Utrecht) presenting her work on local conceptions of psychoanalysis in Argentina, Bojan Zikic on how drug users in Serbia talk about psychotherapy as a means to be emotional in the same way as ‘normal’ people, and Salma Siddique exploring me/not-me relationships in fieldwork and the experience of writing them up. Other papers explored the historically and theoretically intertwined roots of anthropology and psychotherapy (Aleksander Boscovic). I was presenting my PhD research which explores how concepts from both psychotherapy and cultural anthropology like totemism are appropriated today, for instance by a European person engaging with an ethnographic mask from Gabon (17th C.), from the “Musée du Quai Branly”.

Aleksandar Boskovic provided a valuable overview of all the movements in the 20th century, connecting anthropology and psychoanalysis. This paper focused on the work of Georges Devereux and Geza Roheim, who both came from an ethno-psychoanalytical background. Devereux practiced a Freudian listening method with an ethnic population, while Roheim applied Freud’s theories about sexual energy and the Oedipus complex to extra-western group of people. This first presentation provided a historical background to the large field of ethno-psychoanalysis in the 20th century for subsequent papers.

I then presented my research which also explores some of the main foundations of cultural anthropology in North America and France, including the cultural and historical context of the emergence of psychoanalysis. Reviewing the reception of the book Totem and Taboo (Freud 1912) by anthropologists since the 1910s, the concept of the totem can be seen as an important issue of debate for anthropology and psychoanalysis, both uniting and separating the two sciences. Several anthropologists define the concept of the totem as religious, definitions which are reemployed by Freud in Totem and and Taboo (1912).

Questions during the discussion after the paper presentations were about the transference between the participants and ourselves, as anthropologists, in the interaction which occurred during the interviews. We concluded, after the discussion, that transference has to belong to a frame of psychoanalysis. Transference can occur, framing the interpretation of truth in the psychic life of the patient. Anthropologists who practice psychoanalysis have to respect the strict frame of a transference interaction in order to make the unconscious reveal itself. Ethnology and psychoanalysis are often separated, but in fact, the two sciences can work together if ethnology admits the existence of the unconscious, and if it admits that truth comes from the talk of the person who is studied by the researcher. Epistemologically, both of the sciences are connected and complete each other. The main conclusion of the panel was to reconnect psychoanalysis and cultural anthropology, by being honest in the methodology, admitting the Unconscious as universal, and the human being as the best witness of the truth about the human condition.