Talking past each other : conceptual confusion in 'culture' and 'psychopathology'

17 May 2013

This article offers a commentary on Hassim and Wagner’s article, Considering the cultural context in psychopathology formulations, published in this issue of the South African Journal of Psychiatry ( It clarifies aspects of the concepts of culture and psychopathology. A distinction is drawn between the content of culture and the demarcation of cultures. The former refers to socially acquired meanings and significances that condition subjective experience and the latter to specific, demarcated cultural groups. It is argued that these two meanings of culture must be kept apart, and that only the former is relevant to the project of understanding the range of cultural influences on mental health problems. This is premised on the idea, arising partially from anthropological critique, that while cultural designations (e.g. Maori or Muslim) might serve as important political and identity markers, they obscure rather than reveal the actual influences the subject is exposed to, and which condition subjective experience as seen through the modulation of distress or symptom formation.