January 6, 2002
11:53 AM   Subscribe

There are a number of culture-specific disorders, such as genital retraction or the old hag's sleep paralysis.

These disorders are, maybe, too mixed up in "exotifying The Other" (as they say in the ivory tower), but maybe most interesting is the inclusion of anorexia. Some evidence seems support this idea -- after 3 yrs of TV in Fiji, a rise in eating disorders was reported. Are these disorders caused by culture? And/or are the people afflicted expressing an underlying problem in a culturally specific way?
posted by malphigian (18 comments total)
brain fag or brain fog: (West Africa) a condition experience [sic] by high school or university students. Symptoms include difficulties in concentrating, remembering, and thinking. Additional symptoms center around the head and neck and include pain, pressure, tightness, blurring of vision, heat, or burning.

Maybe not so culture specific after all... seriously, how many of these disorders are ones that we would recognize if they were framed in the language of Western psychiatry--if you replaced the phrase "possesion by ancestral spirits" with "psychosis", for example. That said, the information about anorexia is really interesting. I'm willing to believe that it might be culture specific in that relations to the body vary from culture to culture, so that different body types are held up as the standard of beauty. The waist-hip ratio thing that evolutionary psychologists are so fond of doesn't hold up as a cultural universal at all...
posted by jokeefe at 12:42 PM on January 6, 2002

I think there are a lot of factors at work here. The most obvious after you read the list is the psychosomatic illness. A working belief in the 'evil eye' will cause symptoms when you believe you are hexed and relief tends to come via a cleansing or whatever.

So its probably safe to consider group hysteria as a problem in all societies, even the most advanced. Who knows what currently considered 'real' ailment will be considered quackery in the near future or what physical illness will later be classified as having psychological roots.

Secondly, the human body is full of dormant agents that develop into the their respective diseases. Why Sherri gets cancer and I don't is a tough one to answer, when at one point we both had the same amount of benign cancerous cells floating in us. Instead of looking at a per body basis you can look at a per culture basis. Everyone eats more or less the same type of cooking, is genetically similiar, related to common ancestors, and thrives in a patricular environment. I'm sure all these have real effects on health.

Thirdly, western medical classification and scope may not be receptive to non-western ailments, especially in poorer cultures. I wonder how much would be known about sickle cell anemia or AIDS if it only affected a poor group of Fiji Islanders. There's a lot of hubris involved in assuming that every ailment has a western counterpart.

Lastly, medicine isn't the exact science we tend to think it is. There's still a lot of mystery regarding why we get sick or why we stay healthy.
posted by skallas at 2:04 PM on January 6, 2002

culture-specific disorders? Not a stretch if you accept that these are social constructions. The earliest analogs of anorexics were the fasting girls of the Victorian era.

It's no surprise that eating disorders appeared in Fiji after the introduction of TV, for eating disorders are memes transmitted via electronic and print media: Oprah type talk shows, first and foremost, and then , magazines. From drug crazes, teen suicides, high school shooters, and Halloween candy poisonings, these are all formerly--and in the case of high school shooters, still--extremely rare phenomena that came to pass after extensive media coverage. What we pay attention to usually comes to pass even if it never existed before the attention.

98% of Americans, I've read, think Oprah will go to heaven. Yet the harm she has done to society is likely as great as the good.

Everyone eats more or less the same type of cooking, is genetically similiar, related to common ancestors, and thrives in a patricular environment

Ah, but we speak different laguages and come from different histories. The Arabic version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire had this question: How many times has Jerusalem been conquered by invaders? Consider, too, Osama Bin Laden's reference to the fall the Caliphate. We may or may not eat the same food, more or less--I'd bet much less--but what's important to people varies incredibly by location.

Even in Europe, there are medical, as well as psychological syndromes that are not recognized in America. It's very solipsistic to view everyone in the world as essentially just like us. God knows, though, with the Internet, MTV and American mass culture in general, we're trying hard enough to make them that way.
posted by y2karl at 2:49 PM on January 6, 2002

A little off-topic: why would the Malaysian "amok" gain such popularity as a word? There are a lot of other great words in the list, but "amok" seems the only one to have become a common word.

Even more off-topic, what happened to those great Amok catalogues?
posted by MiguelCardoso at 2:55 PM on January 6, 2002

y2karl, you took that little snippet out of context. When I wrote everyone I meant everyone in that particular culture.
posted by skallas at 3:03 PM on January 6, 2002

The Fiji study...

The other theory of anorexia is that its about controlling the self.

I wish I could link to the recent Spiro paper in the journal Ethos (June 2001 [?]). It addressed the potential for "culture" to "cause" things like "culture-bound disorders." He argued that structures of social relations are causal factors, whereas culture cannot be. It cited and discussed recent studies on anorexia.

People suffering from mental disorders such as anorexia each have a specific life history and psychosocial development. Culture, by contrast, is a shared set of values and representations, in the abstract. So the idea that some disorders are relative to specific cultures is problematic—underlying the specific cases of culture-bound disorders are comparable psychosocial developmental variables.

I don't totally agree with the strict separation between culture, social structure, and family relations, but then I'm not a psychological anthropologist. Furthermore, Spiro is usally right about these things. His most important point was that every culture has different kinds of mental disorders, but insofar as these phenomena are mental and pathological by some objective experiential criteria, they are of the same stuff as other mental illnesses. There can be variation in one kind of disorder. There is diversity in pathology, just as there is diversity in human social and cultural forms.
posted by rschram at 4:00 PM on January 6, 2002

98% of Americans, I've read, think Oprah will go to heaven.

Yet another reason why I'm looking forward to Hell.
posted by Optamystic at 4:58 PM on January 6, 2002

skallas, my misunderstanding. I should linger rather than speed read, I suppose. But there is this whole life thing I have going on, more or less...

I still lean toward anorexia and eating disorders as learned behaviors, just judging from the demographics and recent history. I would love to see a correlation between the history and amount of media coverage and cases diagnosed.
posted by y2karl at 6:05 PM on January 6, 2002

A little off-topic: why would the Malaysian "amok" gain such popularity as a word?

Artifact of history, I think, Miguel.

Interesting to note that Malays when running amok tend to attack Malaysian Chinese more often than other Malays.

An interesting corollary to this is in Craig MacAndrews' Drunken Comportment, a cross-cultural examination of behavior under the influence. MacAndrews found that some cultures allowed drunken misbehavior as a 'time out' and others didn't.

There was one example of an African tribe that culturally allowed violent behavior while drunk. One drunken man was terrorizing a village where anthropologists were visiting, ran across their encampment while in his rage and immediately calmed down and quietly passed by--whereupon he resumed his rampage.

Maybe he missed his catalog.
posted by y2karl at 6:33 PM on January 6, 2002

Is that Mad Mel Spiro you're talking about, rschram? One of my bêtes noires in grad school. I would have though he was a hundred years old by now.
posted by rodii at 7:30 PM on January 6, 2002

A book recommendation: Rewriting the Soul, by Ian Hacking, is a great book about what it means to say that mental disorders are culture-specific. Too complex and subtle an argument to paraphrase easily; basically, Hacking points out that there are complicated combinations of whatever organic factors may be involved, with the way given societies both train people to express themselves, and interpret what they do.
posted by Rebis at 7:51 PM on January 6, 2002

> 98% of Americans, I've read, think Oprah will go to heaven.

I doubt that 98% of Americans believe in an afterlife.

[And the thought of spending eternity with Oprah makes my genitals retract. Really, really far.]
posted by pracowity at 10:59 PM on January 6, 2002

What do you guys have against Oprah?

I find her to be an intelligent, open-minded role model willing to tackle provocative issues.

If you're going to bag on talk shows, aim no lower than Jenny Jones or Ricki Lake. At least Jerry Springer admits his flagship is a joke.

For a black woman to become as successful as she has in this country, I have to give her mad props and a bow of respect.
posted by Mach3avelli at 12:48 AM on January 7, 2002

Mach3avelli: You need to get out more in the late afternoons. Oprah is such hype fluff yo.

While she may be a black woman, her selling point is Brand Oprah. White-bred suburban, faux multiculturalism that has everything to do with everything else, but her blackness. Throw in strategically placed celebrity visits and you've got an eager viewership awaiting instructions. Her show is a great big infomercial for book, movie and houseware companies. She helps sell corporate images in the folksy, earnest, homey way these companies know only she can.

People literally have been heard to say "Oprah says. . ." at the restaurant in which I work.

That makes me sick. Speaking of culture specific disorders.
posted by crasspastor at 1:32 AM on January 7, 2002

Hmm...being made sick by hearing "Oprah says..." sounds like a culture-specific disorder to me! I see Oprah Winfrey as a American success story.

"What's Behind the Big Boom In Black Women Writers: ...[T]here's the Oprah Winfrey factor. The talk-show host's book club has been a boon to the publishing industry and to the authors lucky enough to have their work selected as Oprah's book of the month. Four of the five Black authors whose books were selected by Oprah were women (Toni Morrison, Edwidge Danticat, Pearl Cleage and Breena Clarke--Earnest J. Gaines is the lone male). "Oprah has empowered a lot of women readers," [Breena] Clarke says. "She tells them you don't have to read John Updike or John Grisham if you don't want to. And that has helped expand the reading choices of a lot of women, Black and White." The expansion of the Black middle-class has also helped. It has swelled the ranks of women with the disposable income to support a relatively expensive habit--book-buying. Blacks are currently spending more than $400 million annually on books, up from $181 million in 1990."
posted by Carol Anne at 5:20 AM on January 7, 2002

Of course these disorders can be caused by cultural or social pressures! I'm a proponent of memetics, primarily because meme theory explains so much about our culture. One meme that's quite prevalent at the moment is the negative value of weight. The overt message "Weight is ugly" carries an implication far beyond it: "Ugliness is bad. Therefore, weight is bad. If I eat, I will gain weight. Therefore, food is bad." This explains why anorexics do not cease fasting after reaching their desired weight -- weight itself is not their concern. They have simply been strongly instilled with the conditioning that "food is bad." That the syndrome is cultural seems pretty obvious if we look at this example from Japan:
taijin kyofusho: (Japan) a syndrome of intense fear that one's body, body parts, or bodily functions are displeasing, embarrassing, or offensive to other people in appearance, odor, facial expressions, or movements.
I've studied Japan enough to be aware that the Japanese emphasis on being inoffensive and polite is far more than just a Western stereotype: it's a meme implicit in most social relationships. It seems logical, then, that both anorexia and taijin kyofusho are the result of a meme or conditioning dominating an individual to the exclusion of their opposites.

I know this is all a radical overgeneralization -- but I think it makes sense. Feedback?
posted by tweebiscuit at 7:04 AM on January 7, 2002

Death by fan in Korea.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:31 AM on January 9, 2002

Another one to add to America's list is Multiple Personality Disorder.
posted by dydecker at 10:01 AM on January 9, 2002

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