Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Review: Discovering the History of Psychiatry

[Mark S. Micale and Roy Porter, editors. Discovering the History of Psychiatry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.]

This book is a collection of essays by academic authors on the history of the writing of histories of psychiatry. Contrary to my usual practice, my reading of this book has been less than thorough -- a matter of time constraints and inflexible library deadlines. So my review, by necessity, is going to be short, partial, and superficial.

Approximately half the book examines different approaches to the history of psychiatry by talking about the life and work of one or a number of historians who have addressed the topic. Though this material was interesting, and if read more thoroughly could have been useful to me in my ongoing quest as a self-educated historian-from-below to figure out different ways of doing history, I mostly dipped in and out of it.

The next section approaches the topic by examining certain important themes in the subject area. This included two interesting essays about origin myths of psychiatry and related material about the origins of the discipline in the early 19th century, a tracing of different analyses of the asylum by one of the principle mainstream U.S. theorists in this area in the late 20th century, and examinations of psychiatry in the Nazi Germany and pre-Soviet and Soviet Russia.

The final series of essays are about critics of psychiatry. One is a detailed examination of the work of Thomas Szasz, a prominent U.S. critic of psychiatry. I have not read any of his work yet but have a couple of his books on my shelf that I will be getting to soon. The comparison of his "rhetorical paradigm" with the "medical model" for understanding phenomena that are usually described as "mental illnesses" was very insightful and a good introduction to his thought.

Then there was a critical reexamination of Foucault's Madness and Civilization, which I have read and did not find terribly useful. The author traces some of the criticisms that this work has faced since it appeared. Some critics have described it as bad history, at least one has characterized it as good history that has not been read right, and others say it is not history at all. The author reviews some of the major criticisms, and concludes that some of the most prominent ones are simple misreadings of Foucault. Others, however, do raise valid empirical criticisms of Foucault's analysis. The author concludes that this work by Foucault is indeed a work of history, but it is very idealistic history that has most effectively been criticized on empiricist grounds in a context that leans heavily towards empiricist history. He concludes that what is really necessary is a reevaluation of the work with some sympathy for its idealistic approach.

One of the most useful essays in the collection for my purposes was "Feminist Histories of Psychiatry" by Nancy Tomes, which is a detailed review of different feminist efforts to construct histories for psychiatry. I only skimmed the history of French anti-psychiatry, but read attentively the final piece in the collection, "Psychiatry and Anti-psychiatry in the United States" by Norman Dain. I was quite disappointed in it. It does provide some useful broader historical context for anti-psychiatry in North America but gives less specific attention to the social movement manifestations of anti-psychiatry in the '60s through the '80s than I had hoped. In particular, it is marred by a kind of veiled contempt for anti-psychiatry obscured by a scrupulous liberal-academic pseudo-balance that would feel very familiar to anyone who has read a certain flavour of U.S. liberal writing about the left.

Anyway, that's about all I'm going to say about this collection. I wish I'd had time to engage with it more thoroughly, but I'm glad I came across it because a number of the pieces it contains will be quite useful to me.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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