Social Classification & Psychiatric Nosologies: W.H.R. Rivers an Anthropologist and a Military Psychiatrist

Sanaullah Khan //

W.H.R. Rivers⁠—a seminal experimental psychologist and anthropologist⁠—worked both among the patients of shell shock in the First World War and as an anthropologist in the Torres Strait, where he laid the foundations of kinship studies in anthropology. In this article, I argue that Rivers needs to be understood in a historical perspective. I interpret Rivers’ legacy and impact by drawing on various sources, including fiction, military psychiatry, and Rivers’ foundational anthropological work on kinship. In writing about Rivers’ life, I consider the broader sociopolitical context that enabled him to traverse multiple disciplines⁠—psychology, anthropology and later military psychiatry⁠—by outlining his commitment to understanding the realities of that shape an individual’s relationship with social institutions. This commitment, I argue, also impacted how Rivers understood the relationship between patients and psychiatric institutions, where he observed the distrust toward war among soldiers serving in the First World War. During this formative conflict for the field of wartime psychiatry, Rivers simply felt he didn’t have the expertise to treat his patients without a form of coercion⁠—one that he felt he could not inflict without being uprooted from his own humanity. I want to consider whether many of these anxieties were a product of his work as a psychologist and an anthropologist, which enabled him to understand the social realities that engulf psychiatric practice.

In Pat Barker’s World War I novel, Regeneration, Rivers is shown as a psychiatrist in Craiglockhart War Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Edinburgh. The book depicts Rivers as a captain treating a variety of soldiers who participated in trench warfare in France. The most notable of these are Siegfried Sassoon and Billy Prior. The novel starts with a declaration from Sassoon, stating the war is unjust and is being unnecessarily prolonged. He is discharged and sent to Craiglockhart at the behest of a friend, where Rivers is responsible for changing his mind. Prior, suffering bad asthma and mutism, is also under Rivers’ watch. Rivers initially sees it as his duty to his country to change Sassoon’s mind and make Prior fit for war. However, as the novel goes on, Rivers becomes disturbed by the effects of war on his patients’ psyche. His visit to a patient’s house during a vacation ends up with him preventing a suicide. Similarly traumatizing for him is his visit to a fellow war psychiatrist, Lewis Yealland, in London who treats his patients with aggressive electric shocks. Rivers was horrified by Yealland’s treatment of his patients and subsequently suffered nightmares in which he mistreated Sassoon. Rivers, unlike Yealland, was fond of his patients and at one point contemplates that, “as soon as you accepted that the man’s breakdown was a consequence of his war experience rather than of his own innate weakness, then inevitably the war became the issue” (Barker 1991; 115). The sentence serves an important goal to decenter the failure of the war from individual psyche to the social context of the absolute absurdity of warfare for those who were laying down their lives.

By the end of the novel, Rivers begins to question his ideas and beliefs about war, and forces Prior to stay back on permanent home service for his asthma despite the shame Prior feels. Sassoon, however, decides to go back and return to his men, despite being more anti-war than before. Rivers feels regretful that Sassoon is heading to certain death, although he feels he encouraged it. Here we can see that Rivers’ feeling can be summarized as one in which he acknowledges the social existence of psychiatric conditions, which one could not temper, except through some form of coercion with the cost of uprooting him from the humanity of his training in the field of clinical psychology. The question I want to ask is whether this has a resonance with some of the work he had earlier done on kinship.

In 1898, W.H.R. Rivers was part of the Cambridge University Expedition to visit Torres Straits to conduct tests of sensory functions on Melanesians, and in the process, developed genealogies which contributed significantly to methods in anthropological inquiry, which are used and cherished by researchers in social science to this present day. He expounded these methods in a series of lectures compiled as Kinship and Social Organization (1968). In these lectures he refuted the claim that “the classificatory system is nothing more than the body of address.” Second, he opposed modes of denoting relationship as determined by psychological and not by sociological causes (Rivers 1968; 44). For the classificatory systems he studied using secondary sources as well as his own work in Polynesia and Melanesia, he posited the dependence of classificatory terms on social rights than had hitherto been recognized, while maintaining a great amount of variability in terms of whether a relationship entailed a concomitant social responsibility. Often times, varying set of kinship relations could be referred to as parents, both in the same generation as well as the earlier one, yet responsibilities could still vary. It was namely through the institution of marriage that members from different generations were enjoined in a relationship which helped establish genealogical continuity. I would like to use one of his own examples from the island of Pentecost in the northern New Hebrides to illustrate this,

“There were certain features which brought relatives separated by two generations into one category; the mother’s mother, for instance, received the same designation as the elder sister; the wife’s mother the same designation as the daughter; the wife’s brother the same designation as the daughter’s son (Rivers 1968; 57).”

Sometimes, the same individual could also acquire different roles. A good illustration of this could be cases of cross-cousin marriage, in which the relationship of a mother’s brother, father’s sister’s husband and father-in-law could be combined in the same person. This configuration can occur in a different society, yet the claim W.H.R. Rivers makes is that this resemblance still would not translate the similarity of the social condition. This was another important claim Rivers was making, i.e. to secure diversity of human experience, against what some of the earlier anthropologists, such as Lewis Henry Morgan, had argued by suggesting that variability represented varying stages of human progress.

On another level, WHR Rivers was rejecting the claim that the resemblance between two relationships in a kinship network such as a brother and a brother-in-law could simply be a consequence of psychological similarity between the two kinds of relations. Thus, WHR Rivers secured a place for the “psychological” only in relationship to the sociological and not simply as an independent coordinate in determining resemblances between different sets of relations. The fact that there is a resemblance between sister-in-law and a sister, Rivers says, “leads back to a definite social condition arising out of the regulation of marriage and sexual relations” between the husband and the wife’s sister (Rivers 1968; 95). In the Indian context, Rivers says, the same word bahu is used for both the mother and the daughter-in-law. In some cases the entire household refers to the daughter-in-law as bahu, which may have referred to polyandrous relations in some sections of the Indian society, surviving as fragments in language. In all these examples, we can see how individuals can be mutually implicated in various social relations and how classification does not simply arise out of terms of address, or simply out of linguistic purposes, nor do they arise out of psychological resemblances between two individuals alone. By giving all these examples, and by securing genealogies as a method for anthropologists for several decades to come, W.H.R. Rivers was able to secure a firm foundation for the social in classificatory systems.

The question I want to turn to after having given a brief overview of W.H.R. Rivers’ anthropological methods during his work as a psychologist is: whether some of these methods were deployed in his work as a psychiatrist during the First World War. Although the answer for me remains speculative, we know that social classification does in fact overlap in some ways with modern day psychiatric nosologies representing origins, causations and symptoms, as overlapping for a range of medical conditions, which has a reality apart from the linguistic and purely psychological purposes it is meant to serve. It is therefore the realm of social experience, which cannot simply be tempered with by medical experts without the use of force, where Rivers’ accepts his own professional humility in the face of multiple relationships in which his patients were embedded. 


Barker, Pat (1991) Regeneration. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Rivers, W. H. R (1968) Kinship and Social Organization. University of London: The Athlone Press

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