Abigail Jane Mack

In “The Power of Categories,” an early episode of NPR’s popular podcast, Invisibilia, Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel spin a web of scientific inquiry and human interest stories to interrogate the role—the power—categories have in shaping our lives. They tell us how early infants learn to discriminate between cat and dog before spending time with Paige, a bi-gender person whose experience and eventual gender transition unsettle some theorist’s understandings of gender identity. Having promised to investigate aspects of race, they conclude with a story of an enclave in Florida, built to bring the comforts of India home to an aging immigrant population. The episode, while intriguing, does little to interrogate these powerful categories as they emerge within a given culture. Instead, the politics of American gender expression or racial discrimination alluded to are left largely unexplored. Even in the context of a thriving immigrant community, we encounter “categories” as largely individual. In later episodes, and much to the excitement of my fellow Psychological Anthropologists, the producers of the show began to integrate a more skeptical and culturally informed take, incorporating work on emotion from Renato Rosaldo and Lisa Barrett. As a whole the trajectory of the podcast series offers a compelling instructional resource not only for opening students to ideas that are often at the heart of psychological and medical inquiry—emotion, fear, perception—but for honing their skills as critical consumers of popular discourse. This last skill is critical for all students no matter their career goals, but is especially important in training the next wave of students in anthropology and the critical humanities.

My own work operates at the interstices of many disciplines. For the past four years, I have worked as an ethnographer in Los Angeles, investigating the ways law and medicine collide in the enactment of involuntary psychiatric commitment. I ask how doctors learn to make ethical decisions about treating a patient against his or her will, how the law informs such decisions, and the consequences this complicated relationship between law and medicine has on patient care. In my doctoral program, I’ve trained as a Psychological, Medical, and Linguistic Anthropologist, but my Master’s training in the critical humanities deeply informs my work. It is important, I maintain, not only to investigate the mechanisms of an ethical medical decisions (the language, the standards of care, the structures of the institution), but the ways such decisions are informed by political and popular discourses of mental health.

For many, adopting the reflexivity necessary for identifying and critiquing the way culture operates in one’s own society is impossibly difficult. As a teacher as well as a researcher, I  believe cultivating such reflexivity is one of the greatest tools we can give to our students. I look to a recent conversation between anthropologists Aiden Seale-Feldmen and Megan Raschig as an excellent example of the power such skills can have for current and future generation of college students.

As an informal practice, I’ve developed a syllabus which I include here. As I teach in a university that operates on the quarter system, this syllabus is largely aspirational (16 weeks instead of 10) and open for critique and change. My hope in including it, is that the course may be developed for a wide-variety of uses—a resource guide, informal reading practice—and used at a wide-variety of educational levels. The proposed course takes a critical theoretical and humanities-inspired approach to anthropological and popular accounts of mental illness, primarily in the US. In addition to engaging with a wide-variety of ethnographies—from accounts of depressive illness amongst the Navajo to considerations of trauma in Cambodia to the Borderline Personality Disorder in an eating disorder clinic in the Midwest US—students will be trained to identify the role and function of publics and the power of rhetoric (beyond grand speeches) in their everyday lives, with Invisibilia as one such example. Incorporating multiple forms of media—including podcasts—not only helps to accommodate a variety of learning styles represented by any given student body, it also gives students multiple opportunities to encounter and confront the role of public discourse in their everyday lives.  At the end of the semester, they will be capable of applying critical techniques to the phenomenon we discuss in class and their everyday experiences of popular media, medical and psychiatric practices. Learning not only how mental illness and health is experienced but how to analyze and engage with these accounts of experience, my hope is that students will leave the class with a stronger sense of the historical, discursive and cultural life of mental health in the US.

The syllabus takes up a great deal of difficult issues and uses books, videos, and podcasts which sometimes include graphic images of suffering and violence. For this reason, I would encourage the many life-long learners among us who may find use in the syllabus to pick and choose at their own discretion. As a teacher, I strive to articulate my expectations about intellectual engagement early so that we (my students and I) can mobilize emotional reactions for what they are—a kind of critical and political analysis. I believe it is possible to engage with intellectually and emotionally difficult material productively without getting lost in the waves of our distress and—further—I believe it is necessary. Mental health, emotions, social categories– these topics pervade our daily lives in current events and intimate interaction. Developing shared resources for understanding how such phenomena operate is a critical, political and personal endeavor. Now more than ever, I would argue. Please feel free to send critiques, reading suggestions. The syllabus is a living text!


Part 3 of “Criminal Mind” is still in progress. I look forward to discussing the medical and health implications of building a life after prison.


Keep reading