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Opler, M.E. (1935). The Psychoanalytic Treatment of Culture. Psychoanal. Rev., 22(2):138-157.

(1935). Psychoanalytic Review, 22(2):138-157

The Psychoanalytic Treatment of Culture

M. E. Opler

One who is interested in both psychoanalysis and cultural anthropology might complain with some reason that today the two disciplines stand lamentably far apart in subject matter and method.

This was not always the case. It is well known that psychoanalytic theory, when first promulgated, agreed with the anthropology of the day in important aspects of theory, fact, and method. It will be useful, perhaps, to review these former points of agreement, and to investigate the subsequent developments in psychoanalysis and in anthropology which have been responsible for the estrangement. Such an inquiry should show how far from interests once held in common the two fields have drifted, should indicate whether the rift arises from difficulties and differences that are insoluble, and should rediscover any elements which might profitably be made the basis of a new liaison, if that is desirable.

One important doctrine formerly shared by psychoanalysis and anthropology was the evolutionary point of view applied to both mind and culture. The most prominent anthropologists, at the time Freud was shaping his theories, believed and wrote that the mind of man and the culture of man evolved through successive stages, each of greater complexity, until the existence of complex modern civilization and the modern mind were realized.

It was the mental aspects of this view which Freud found particularly useful. Granting the evolution of mind, it followed that archaic levels of the civilized mind could be investigated by consulting the data concerning preliterate peoples. The neurotic, regressing to a more primitive stage of thought, could be profitably compared to the savage. The child, rehearsing the past of his race by virtue of a “mass psyche” could be compared to both.

There has been no retraction of the concept of mental evolution on the part of the psychoanalyst.

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