Did you know that your mind is a cesspit of anger, and fear, and unresolved moments from your childhood? It’s not just you. Apparently everyone is living in a minefield of emotional triggers and traps. And underlying all of your behavior is a completely individualized personality structure, built up from stray comments and the subtle body language of your parents.
These are the lessons I learned when I stepped away from anthropology, and into psychology. I learned I should be placing a lot of blame on parents. I’m not buying it.
I didn’t step away from anthropology and into psychology by accident, but because of some big news: I’m having a baby! (I mean, my wife is having the baby. In the delivery suite, I’ll be a participant observer).
As part of our preparation for parenthood, we went as a couple to a class, offered by the local government, called Relax Into Parenting. The class was run by a psychologist, whose practice is focused on couples and families. The guiding philosophy of the class was called “Circle of Security” parenting. It’s a whole thing, and I won’t get into it, but here’s their website.
At one point in the class, we watched a film clip from Circle of Security. In the clip, a father tells his toddler it’s time to go home from the park. The little girl throws a tantrum. And suddenly, the man is triggered. He’s flooded with inchoate emotional responses. The narrator of the film clip explains that this all goes back to his own mother. He is helpless to resist this emotional onslaught, but by recognizing and naming his emotions, the man in the park could prevent himself from passing on at least some of the trauma he received as a result of his own upbringing.
What about culture?
I don’t know anything about psychology. But I do know a bit about anthropology. When the man in the film got agitated, little thought bubbles appeared around him. “Her disobedience is unbearable”. “How can I force her to listen to me?” “I wish everyone wasn’t looking at me”. “She’ll turn out weak if I let her get away with this!”
Ah, a discourse! This was something I knew how to interpret. Force, disobedience, weakness. The man is reproducing a culture of strength, power, gender norms. He is teaching the little girl to discipline her emotional displays, under the repressive power of surveillance, even by strangers in a public park. These structures are durable, pervasive, and deeply ingrained.
So, do we have to blame his poor mother or father? As a parent-to-be, this was the question I found myself asking. Could it really be true that everything in me, and everything I would ingrain in my child, was so personal? What about all the other influences on a person’s life? What about culture?
Transcending culture through awareness
There were people in the class from a variety of countries and backgrounds, and the teacher acknowledged this, saying that we each would have different cultural concepts around the family unit, gender roles, and so on.
Then she added, every family is a culture in itself. With discipline and intention, we can shape the culture as we pass it on. That is a hopeful message. But it places a great deal of power with the parents. Along with that power comes a lot of pressure.
A family is not a culture, but exists inside a welter of different cultures. My wife and I will not be the only influences on the life of our child. Family, friends, media, school; tangible infrastructures, subtle dispositions, imaginaries and materialities–there’s so, so much more. In the midst of all that, our child–any child–will be the best damn ethnographer imaginable, soaking up the meanings behind the systems of symbols and behaviors he or she encounters, and synthesizing those lessons into a way of being in the world that is both deeply personal and culturally appropriate.
More than anything, I want to know: who will my child be? Just as I can’t take full credit, I don’t want to give anyone, even an animated mom in a cartoon clip, the full blame.
Having said all this, the classes were actually helpful, and I’d recommend them to anyone in the Canberra area who find themselves in our position. I’ll also face the fact that, since I’m having just one child, I won’t be getting to know a population, just an individual. Maybe learning something about how the individual mind works will change my thinking about this.
Using Psychology in Anthropology
I never studied psychology, and while I did undergo counselling for a couple of years as a kid, my contact with psychiatry as an adult has been almost entirely through the stories and experiences of my friends. Indeed, as a middle-class New Yorker of Jewish heritage, I find psychotherapy as normal as bagels and lox.
From where I stand now, I go by what professors in anthropology told me expressly: don’t look for personal, character-driven, psychological explanations for behavior. Instead, look to structure, and culture. Work with symbols and discourses, physical objects and observable actions. Apparently not every anthropologist is pointed that way. Some, like our own Julia Brown, see anth and psych as complementary fields, where a family is like a micro-culture – at least insofar as psychoanalysis is concerned (she’s written about some the overlaps and political/cultural implications here). But for me this talk of purely personal, purely emotional, behavioral drivers still brings up some resistance.
I’m curious to hear the experiences of readers here. Ethnographers in particular, do you find yourself psychologizing your interlocutors? Do you find yourself theorizing emotional trauma—not the grand traumas of war or colonization, but small-scale traumas like domestic abuse, the loss of a parent, child, or partner, or personal ostracization?
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