Psychoanalytic Anthropology between Universal Aspirations and Eurocentric Limitations


When, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud formulated the main points of psychoanalysis, he firmly believed that his findings had universal application. His excursion to the field of anthropology in his book Totem and Taboo (1912/13) made a very negative impression among anthropologists. The fieldwork of Géza Roheim (1928–1931) and George Devereux after WW2 could not change this perception. An unfavorable circumstance was that psychoanalytic anthropology emerged concomitantly with the Culture and Personality School. The two approaches were in constant dialogue but were never able to find a common ground. The latter school promoted strong cultural relativism. From that point of view psychoanalysis, as Freud postulated it, could only be valid for European bourgeois societies. Many psychoanalytic concepts could indeed be linked to so-called Victorian morality and hegemonic masculinity, and both things were only episodes, even in terms of European history.

After WW2 many scholars used some of psychoanalytic concepts for their theories, and the list of such scholars includes members of the Frankfurt School, Norbert Elias, and Christopher Lasch; however, the overall crisis of psychoanalysis at the end of the twentiethcentury seemed to have relegated the application of the psychoanalytic method mainly to the studies of literature and art. Since the early 1990s, some Freudian concepts were revived with the idea of human universals and near-universals, as postulated by Donald Brown. Influential authors like Steven Pinker and Anthony Giddens further elaborated some of the Freudian concepts. The lecture focused on five concepts and their contemporary applications: the psychoanalytic construct of human nature, the importance of the unconscious, causes of human violence, sexual fluidity, and culture and identity. To what extent are these notions, defined in psychoanalytic terms, used by current researchers? 

Slobodan G. Markovich is a professor and head of the Centre for British Studies at the University of Belgrade. Since 2018, Markovich has been a research associate at the London School of Economics think tank IDEAS. Political anthropology and the image of the other are central components of his research within the field of Southeast European Studies. He has written several books about British perceptions of the Balkans in 19th and 20th centuries, crimes of the communist regime, and the central narratives underpinning Yugoslavism in correspondence to the concept of civic religion. His current research focuses on applying psychoanalytic theory to the study of modern political ideology, specifically the history of European pessimism.

Ivan Vejvoda, IWM Permanent Fellow, introduced the speaker and moderated the Q&A with the audience.