Review – Transnational Psychiatries: Social and Cultural Histories of Psychiatry in Comparative Perspective c. 1800-2000. Editors: Waltraud Ernst and Thomas Mueller (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010)

By Yumi Kim

Rallying cries for more comparative and transnational histories have resounded for the past two decades. Even so, it has not been easy for the sub-field of the history of psychiatry to break out of the conceptual framework of the singular nation-state. But change is in the air. In Transnational Psychiatries: Social and Cultural Histories of Psychiatry in Comparative Perspective c. 1800-2000, editors Waltraud Ernst and Thomas Mueller present a compilation of eleven historical case studies that track psychiatric encounters and exchanges of all kinds—people, ideas, institutions, and materialsacross geo-cultural regions as far-flung as South America, Asia and Europe. It is the first of its kind. Other recent volumes about psychiatry in an international context have simply juxtaposed chapters focused on single nations or included a few comparative studies.[i] In contrast, every chapter of Transnational Psychiatries engages with at least one methodology of comparative history: systematic comparison, transfer, shared history, histoire croisée (crossed history), and transnational history. The themes examined include the transfer of treatment practices and institutional regimes; the impact of war and politics on psychiatric discourse; cultural meanings of psychiatric terms; circulation of anti-alienists’ views; and local forms of patient care. The result is a stimulating introduction to the complexities of exploring the history of psychiatry from a truly global perspective.

The study of psychiatry in colonial settings in particular lends itself well to studies of the transnational circulation of knowledge, as demonstrated in the respective chapters by Waltraud Ernst and Jacqueline Leckie on the Indian Mental Hospital at Ranchi in the 1920s to 1940s and the institutionalization of the mentally ill in Fiji at the turn of the twentieth century. The development of psychiatry in the British colonies, they suggest, was not influenced exclusively (or even primarily) by information flowing in from the metropole; rather, psychiatry took on global dimensions. The Superintendent of Ranchi, J.E. Dhunjibhoy, for instance, implemented the latest therapies that first appeared in internationally circulated journals, corresponded with leading psychiatrists in continental Europe, and toured mental hospitals in North America. And Leckie reminds us that psychiatry in the colonies was also “local,” entangled in indigenous conceptions of madness and concerns of the community. Ernst and Leckie’s studies also prompt further questions about the directions in which ideas were transferred: did knowledge developed in the colonies travel back to the metropole? How did psychiatric practices in one colony (Fiji) affect those in another (New Caledonia)?

Four other chapters also address the process of historical “transfer,” or how material objects and expert knowledge were adapted and reconstructed within different socio-cultural contexts. Junko Kitanaka writes about the varied meanings of depression in Japan while Akira Hashimoto explores how the model of psychiatric foster family care in the Flemish town of Gheel made its way into Japan in the early twentieth century. Akihito Suzuki also addresses Japanese psychiatry in the 1920s and 1930s by examining the adaptation of shock therapies in vogue at the time. In another chapter, Yolanda Eraso analyzes academic exchanges between German and Argentinean doctors that resulted in the establishment of work therapy for mentally ill patients in Argentina. These chapters, like those of Ernst and Leckie, highlight the global dimensions of psychiatric exchanges in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although these case studies unfortunately tend to reinforce the assumption that ideas were almost always disseminated from the West to the East and the South, they do begin to reveal how such ideas and practices were transformed, generalized, or abandoned in extra-European settings. These chapters encourage us to trace the dynamic of changing relations between various parts of the world.

This volume also recasts well-known national histories of psychiatry in a new comparative light. Through the systematic comparison of European nations, contributors Thomas Mueller, Catherine Fussinger, and Annick Ohayon demonstrate the distinct—if parallel—national paths followed by different psychiatric institutions and professionals in the past century. Mueller compares the development of psychiatric family care in Belgium, France, and Germany from the 1880s to 1980s. Psychiatric family care had been practiced in all three countries but in the course of the twentieth century, as a result of National Socialist health policies, Germany abandoned family-care entirely until the mid-1980s, whereas in France and Belgium family care provision returned immediately after liberation from German occupation. In their chapter, Fussinger and Ohayon compare the reception of psychoanalysis in Switzerland and France in the 1950s, following the debate over the extent to which psychotherapy ought to figure in the training of psychiatrists. They untangle issues of professional autonomy, institutional recognition, and local politics in order to explain how psychotherapy became formally recognized as an integral part of psychiatry in Switzerland, but was considered optional training for psychiatrists in France.

At their best, comparative and transnational histories track the movement of objects, people, and ideas in a way that undermines stark binaries—East-West, colony-metropole, elite-subaltern—and ultimately enables us to see modernity as the multifaceted and multidirectional process that it always has been. Transnational Psychiatries helps us take a step in that direction, even though at times some of its contributors continue to use an inherited vocabulary of binaries or trace the movement of knowledge in one direction only. As a whole, this innovative volume reminds us that even when the nation-state is a logical unit of analysis to explain some developments in the history of psychiatry, such “national” stories cannot be told without reference to larger international political and cultural contexts.

Yumi Kim is a PhD student in the Department of History at Columbia University. She specializes in the history of mental illness in modern Japan.


[i] R. Porter and D. Wright, The Confinement of the Insane: International Perspectives, 1800-1965 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); M. Gijswijt-Hofstra, H. Oosterhuis, J. Vijselaar and H. Freeman (eds), Psychiatric Cultures Compared: Psychiatry and Mental Health Care in the Twentieth Century: Comparisons and Approaches (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005); R. Bivins and J.V. Pickstone (eds), Medicine, Madness and Social History (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); L. Topp, J. Moran and J. Andrews (eds), Madness, Architecture and the Built Environment: Psychiatric Spaces in Historical Context (London and New York: Routledge, 2007); and S. Mahone and M. Vaughan (eds), Psychiatry and Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

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