In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Psychological Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks and Readers
  • Journals
  • Ethnographic Studies
  • Culture and Personality
  • Personhood and Person-Centered Anthropology
  • Psychoanalytic Anthropology
  • Culture and Human Development
  • Cognitive Anthropology
  • Emotion
  • Spirit Possession and Altered States of Consciousness
  • Mind, Body, and Embodiment

Anthropology Psychological Anthropology
Andrew Beatty
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0124


Psychological anthropology is the study of psychological topics using anthropological concepts and methods. Among the areas of interest are personal identity, selfhood, subjectivity, memory, consciousness, emotion, motivation, cognition, madness, and mental health. Considered thus, hardly a topic in the anthropological mainstream does not offer grist for the analytical mill. Like economic or political anthropology, psychological anthropology can be seen as a perspective on the social as well as being a subfield of the broader discipline. The overlap in subject matter with the related discipline of psychology is obvious, but the approach, grounded in ethnographic fieldwork and comparativism, is usually quite different. Moreover, as a reflexive endeavor, psychological anthropology shines a light not only on the cultural vehicles of thought (language, symbolism, the body) but also on the concepts we use to think about those means. Psychological anthropologists are concerned, for example, not merely with emotional practices in diverse cultures (what angers people? how do they express it?), but in the shape and cross-cultural validity of the concept of emotion. To the ethnographic question, “How do the Nuaulu classify animals?” they add, “How is their classification structured and what does that structure reveal about broader processes of cognition?” Some of the basic categories of psychology—self, mind, emotion—turn out, in cross-cultural perspective, to be less self-evident, less transparently objective than expected. While rough equivalents can often be found in other linguistic traditions, the scholar soon finds that English (or French or Malay) is not a neutral inventory of psychological universals. Comparison can be corrosive of confidence. And perhaps more than in other subfields, in psychological anthropology there is a full spectrum from the hard scientific to the soft interpretive. Indeed, a divergence between a scientific, positivist psychology—confident in its categories and methods, bent on universals—and a relativist, meaning-oriented, often doubt-ridden constructionism is one of the productive tensions that animate inquiry. Until recently, the subfield has fared very differently on either side of the Atlantic. With some exceptions, anthropologists in Britain and France until at least the 1960s pursued strongly sociological or structuralist agendas unsympathetic to psychological anthropology. American anthropologists, with their broader conception of culture and interest in individual experience, led the way with culture and personality studies, a diverse body of work that has a recent reinvention in person-centered anthropology. Parallel endeavors in psychoanalytic anthropology and cognitive anthropology drew on different intellectual traditions. These complementary, sometimes rival, approaches span and crosscut in surprising ways the scientific-humanistic division that characterizes anthropology generally. Psychiatric anthropology has, from the beginning, formed an important strand of psychological anthropology besides having some overlap with medical anthropology.

General Overviews

The scope of psychological anthropology is vast, not only in approaches and styles but also in the proliferating range of topics considered. One could have—and unfortunately does have—a psychological anthropology of almost anything. The subfield is peculiarly open to dialogue across disciplines. Shweder and LeVine 1984, for example, records fruitful exchanges among anthropologists, philosophers, psychologists, and cognitive scientists. Indeed, boundaries with neighboring disciplines are at best fuzzy: It is the methods rather than the problems that differ. Shweder 1991 and Stigler, et al. 1990 propose a “new” discipline of cultural psychology—more experimental than anthropology, more relativistic and reflexive than psychology; but such works sit comfortably with the more experimental side of psychological anthropology. Though now old, Schwartz, et al. 1994 remains a convenient starting point for understanding orientations, theoretical battle lines, and debating positions. Casey and Edgerton 2005 offers a mix of familiar and new topics; Beatty 2017 gives a review of the current field. The Society for Psychological Anthropology is a useful website with links to online resources.

  • Beatty, Andrew. 2017. Psychological anthropology: An awkward hybrid? In The Routledge companion to contemporary anthropology. Edited by Simon Coleman, Susan B. Hyatt, and Ann Kingsolver, 382–399. London: Routledge.

    A critical guide to the field, tracing the diverging paths as well as the strengths and weaknesses of cognitive anthropology, psychoanalytic and person-centered approaches, the Culture and Personality school, and recent work influenced by cognitive science and evolutionary psychology.

  • Casey, Conerly, and Robert B. Edgerton, eds. 2005. A companion to psychological anthropology: Modernity and psychocultural change. Oxford: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470996409

    Essays exhibiting the expanded range of psychological anthropology in the era of globalization. Coverage includes immigrant identities, the impact of biomedical technologies, genocide, political violence, and conceptions of race, as well as standard topics like memory, meaning, emotion, and dreams.

  • Schwartz, Theodore, Geoffrey M. White, and Catherine A. Lutz, eds. 1994. New directions in psychological anthropology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This collection has programmatic assessments by leading scholars, including chapters on cognitive anthropology, ethnopsychology, human development, and biological, psychoanalytic, and psychiatric approaches.

  • Shweder, Richard A. 1991. Thinking through cultures: Expeditions in cultural psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Shweder’s version of psychological anthropology is more experimental and closer to the concerns of academic psychology than most mainstream anthropology but remains committed to a relativist position. This bracing collection includes a comprehensive critique of culture and personality theory.

  • Shweder, Richard A., and Robert A. LeVine, eds. 1984. Culture theory: Essays on mind, self, and emotion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    An influential collection mixing culture theorists with philosophers and cognitivists. Includes R. Solomon on emotions as judgments, as well as classic essays by C. Geertz, M. Rosaldo, and R. Levy. Spiro’s skeptical rebuttal of Rosaldo’s relativism—a psychoanalytic take on her ethnography—is a useful counterblast. Essential reading for students of psychological anthropology.

  • Society for Psychological Anthropology.

    A website maintained by the Society for Psychological Anthropology, a section of the American Anthropological Association.

  • Stigler, James W., Richard A. Shweder, and Gilbert H. Herdt, eds. 1990. Cultural psychology: Essays on comparative human development. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139173728

    Shweder’s introduction stakes out a new hybrid discipline of cultural psychology. Other contributors fit more squarely into cognitive and psychoanalytic subfields of anthropology. The unifying focus is the culture concept. Spiro is again the party-pooper, robustly defending the antirelativist position. Herdt’s essay on Sambia nosebleeding rituals is an ethnographic classic that challenges readers on many levels.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.