Pharmaceutical Self and Imaginary: Studies in Psychopharmacology and Globalization

Advanced Seminar

October 14–18, 2007

Pharmaceutical Self and ImaginaryPharmaceutical Self and ImaginaryAdvanced Seminar, Chaired by Janis H. Jenkins, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego.Pharmaceutical Self and ImaginaryAdvanced Seminar, Chaired by Janis H. Jenkins, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego.

The use of psychoactive drugs—drugs that affect the brain—is nothing new in human history, but in recent decades dramatic changes have taken place that influence when, why, and where people take such medications. At her colloquium in October, Janis Jenkins, chair of the advanced seminar “Pharmaceutical Self and Imaginary,” shared a recent magazine cartoon: A doleful man sits across from his doctor. “My dosage needs adjustment,” he says. “I’m not as happy as the people in the ads.” The joke humorously focused the audience’s attention on the purpose of the seminar: “to analyze the nexus of culture and psychopharmacology in the context of a globalizing world.”

The seminar expanded on a 2005 workshop session that “interrogated the blurred conjunction of magic, science, and religion with respect to pharmaceutical markets and global capitalism, on the one hand, and culture and the lived experience of pharmacological agents, on the other.” At the seminar, Jenkins charged the group with addressing several questions concerning the increasingly widespread distribution of psychopharmacological drugs worldwide: “How are culturally created selves transformed by regular ingestion of these drugs, and reciprocally, how are culture, society, and nation-state transformed by sizable proportions of the population regularly ingesting such drugs?”

Regardless of why people take these drugs—for therapeutic, ontherapeutic, or recreational reasons, whether to alleviate suffering or enhance performance, whether awake or asleep—“to what extent are Homo sapiens transforming themselves into pharmaceutical selves on a scale previously unknown? Does the meaning of being human increasingly come to mean not only oriented to drugs but also produced and regulated by them? From the standpoint of cultural phenomenology, does this reshape human ‘being’?”

The roles of the global marketplace and the pharmaceutical industry came under scrutiny, notably the way—as with the man in the cartoon—manufacturers’ advertising introduces a drug and explains the relevant diagnosis to the public, creating in the potential consumer the perception of an illness. “This transformation of help seeking and subjectivity is a reversal of previous human experience,” Jenkins observed. Terms such as biochemical imbalance are poorly defined but commonly used in advertising. “Pharmaceutical companies are imagining (and banking on) the authority of scientifically endorsed appeals to the imaginary to persuade consumers to use their drugs.”

The extent of psychopharmacological use in the United States alone may be as high as 25 percent of the adult population, reflecting the way treatment for mental illness is being affected by the global dominance of biomedicine, sometimes in seemingly absurd ways. The participants asked, What does it mean to dispense three days of tranquilizers to a person who has lost everything in a tsunami? What does it mean to refuse medication as a homeless person on the streets of Chicago, when to accept that medication is interpreted as cultural defeat in accepting a stigmatized identity as “crazy”? What does it mean to take medication in the poorest sectors of Brazil in the wake of social abandonment by one’s family for ceasing to be economically productive?

The seminar participants expect their resulting book to be “a novel contribution to anthropology and a major challenge for scholars more broadly to consider the cultural, historical, and political-economic ramifications of pervasive psychopharmacological use in the twenty-first century.”

Janis H. Jenkins, Chair Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego Psychopharmaceutical Self and Imaginary in the Social Field of Psychiatric Treatment
Joao Biehl Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Princeton University Catkine…Asylum, Laboratory, Pharmacy, Pharmacist, I and the Cure: Psychopharmacological Subjectivity
Joel Braslow Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles Consuming Patients
Stefan Ecks Lecturer, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Edinburgh A Polyspherology of Psychopharmaceuticals: Globalization, Capitalism, and Psychiatry
Byron Good Professor, Department of Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Harvard University The Complexities of Psychopharmaceutical Hegemonies in Indonesia
Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good Professor, Department of Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Harvard University Trauma in Postconflict Aceh and Psychopharmaceuticals as a Medium of Exchange
Tanya Luhrmann Professor, Department of Anthropology, Stanford University “They Say I Need Medication:” Psychopharmacology on the American Street
Emily Martin Professor, Department of Anthropology, New York University Sleepless in America
Jonathan M. Metzl Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Women’s Studies, University of Michigan Gender Stereotypes in the Diagnosis of Depression: A Systematic Content Analysis of Medical Records
A. Jamie Saris Senior Lecturer, Department of Anthropology, National University of Ireland, Maynooth The Addicted Self and the Pharmaceutical Self: Ecologies of Will, Information, and Power in Junkies, Addicts, and Patients

Follow us: