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Journal: Culture, medicine and psychiatry


Given the ambiguity surrounding the source of the continuing trend toward earlier menarche observed in Westernized nations, several competing explanatory models have emerged regarding variation in pubertal timing. While a biomedical model proposes that predominantly constitutional characteristics shape the maturation timetable, an alternative framework derived from Life History Theory (LHT) evolutionary principles emphasizes the influence of psychosocial factors on development. Working with a sample of women 19-25 years of age (N = 103) drawn from two Southeastern U.S. colleges, we combined cultural consensus analysis with retrospective self-report regarding childhood stress and menarcheal timing to investigate whether reported developmental experiences align with cultural models regarding factors that should drive pubertal timing. Results suggest a robust cultural model consistent with a biomedical framework concentrating principally on constitutional characteristics. However, participants' personal developmental recollections support an association between higher childhood stress and earlier menarche. These findings support LHT predictions that early reproductive maturation is an evolutionary adaptive response to chronic childhood stress as well as clarify the extent to which cultural models of factors contributing to puberty concord with developmental experiences.

Concepts: Scientific method, Child, Adolescence, Puberty, Human development, Menarche, Thelarche, Pubarche


Recent studies in African contexts have revealed a strong association between spirit possession and severe trauma, with inclusion into a possession cult serving at times a therapeutic function. Research on spirit possession in the Dominican Republic has so far not included quantitative studies of trauma and dissociation. This study evaluated demographic variables, somatoform dissociative symptoms, and potentially traumatizing events in the Dominican Republic with a group of Vodou practitioners that either do or do not experience spirit possession. Inter-group comparisons revealed that in contrast to non-possessed participants (n = 38), those experiencing spirit possession (n = 47) reported greater somatoform dissociation, more problems with sleep, and previous exposure to mortal danger such as assaults, accidents, or diseases. The two groups did not differ significantly in other types of trauma. The best predictor variable for group classification was somatoform dissociation, although those items could also reflect the experience of followers during a possession episode. A factor analysis across variables resulted in three factors: having to take responsibility early on in life and taking on a professional spiritual role; traumatic events and pain; and distress/dissociation. In comparison with the non-possessed individuals, the possessed ones did not seem to overall have a remarkably more severe story of trauma and seemed to derive economic gains from possession practice.

Concepts: Factor analysis, Psychological trauma, Dissociation, Puerto Rico, Dissociative identity disorder, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Index of Dominican Republic-related articles


The box-office as well as critical success of the 2014 major motion picture Still Alice, starring Julianne Moore in the title role and based on the bestselling novel of the same name by the Harvard-trained neuroscientist Lisa Genova (Still Alice. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2009), marked an important moment in public cultural representations of people with dementia. Still Alice tells the story of Alice Howland, an eminent scientist whose increasing memory lapses are eventually diagnosed as early-onset Alzheimer’s, and chronicles the transformations in her family relationships as her husband and three children respond to her decline in different ways. Alice’s husband, her son, and her older daughter all respond by turning toward science, while her younger daughter Lydia seeks to engage her mother as she is now, and turns toward art and relationships. Taking Still Alice and the figure of Lydia as an entry point, I discuss arts-focused efforts to improve the lives of people with dementia, and draw upon ongoing interview-based research on the topic of dementia and friendship, to offer an account of some of the ways that people I have spoken with are actively experimenting with art and with relationships in the face of dementia. I argue that these efforts can be understood as “moral experiements,” in the sense articulated by Cheryl Mattingly (Moral Laboratories: Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2014). Although Lydia is a fictional character, her response to Alice’s dementia points toward the kinds of moral experimentation that are in fact possible, and quietly being practiced, by ordinary people every day.

Concepts: Alzheimer's disease, Family, Stanford prison experiment, Fiction, Experiment, Novel, Film, Julianne Moore


As numerous scholars have noted, cancer survivorship is often represented in popular discourse as providing an opportunity for a physical, emotional, and spiritual makeover. However, this idea that cancer enables the self to be remade on all levels is also increasingly evoked in the field of psychosocial oncology. Exploring cancer survivorship as a biopolitical phenomenon, I focus on two concepts that have become central to understandings of the disease: the “teachable moment” and “post-traumatic growth.” Drawing primarily on representations of cancer survivorship in the clinical literature, I suggest that cancer is increasingly seen to present a unique opportunity to catalyze the patient’s physical and psychological development. In this framework, the patient can no longer be relied upon to transform him or herself: this change must be externally driven, with clinicians taking advantage of the trauma that cancer entails to kick-start the patient into action. Broadening my analysis to the concepts of “trauma” and “development” writ large, I go on to suggest that survivorship discourse seems to partake of a larger and relatively recent meta-narrative about development-both individual and societal-and the positive opportunity that trauma is seen to present to stimulate reconstruction on a grand scale.

Concepts: Psychology, Cancer, Patient, Hospital, Perception, Developmental psychology, Clinical psychology, Biopolitics


While recent developments within the field of global mental health have illuminated the reality of serious mental health difficulties worldwide, particularly in low-income settings, research that focuses on children and adolescents remains underdeveloped. This is especially the case with respect to ethnographic studies of lived experience of adolescents diagnosed with serious mental health conditions. Drawing from an interdisciplinary study of adolescents in New Mexico who were afflicted with a broad range of disorders according to contemporary research diagnostic criteria, this article focuses on anxiety-related conditions with respect to subjective experience and social-ecological contexts of living with such conditions. We offer preliminary observations regarding the value of linking ethnographic and research diagnostic data to address questions of resilience, endurance, capacity and struggle. These observations are intended as the basis for the formulation of more precise hypotheses about adolescent anxiety, kin, and care under conditions of structural violence marked by psychological, residential, and intergenerational adversity.

Concepts: Scientific method, Psychology, Diagnosis


The past decade in the U.S. has been marked by a media fascination with the white prescription opioid cum heroin user. In this paper, we contrast media coverage of white non-medical opioid users with that of black and brown heroin users to show how divergent representations lead to different public and policy responses. A content analysis of 100 popular press articles from 2001 and 2011 in which half describe heroin users and half describe prescription opioid users revealed a consistent contrast between criminalized urban black and Latino heroin injectors with sympathetic portrayals of suburban white prescription opioid users. Media coverage of the suburban and rural opioid “epidemic” of the 2000s helped draw a symbolic, and then legal, distinction between (urban) heroin addiction and (suburban and rural) prescription opioid addiction that is reminiscent of the legal distinction between crack cocaine and powder cocaine of the 1980s and 1990s. This distinction reinforces the racialized deployment of the War on Drugs and is sustained by the lack of explicit discussion of race in the service of “color blind ideology.” We suggest potential correctives to these racially divergent patterns, in the form of socially responsible media practices and of clinical engagement with public policy.

Concepts: Opioid, Morphine, Drug addiction, Heroin, Race, Crack cocaine, Cocaine


Although people often refer to quality of life and there is a respectable research tradition to establish it, the meaning of the term is unclear. In this article we qualitatively study an intervention of which the quantitative effects are documented as indecisive. We do this in order to learn more about what the meaning of the term quality of life means when it is studied in daily life. With the help of these findings we reflect on the intricacies of objectifying and measuring quality of life using quantitative research designs. Our case is the feeding tube for patients suffering from ALS, a severe motor neuron disease that rapidly and progressively incapacitates patients. We studied how these patients, who lived in the Netherlands, anticipated and lived with a feeding tube in the course of their physical deterioration. Our analysis shows that the quality of life related to the feeding tube has to be understood as a process rather than as an outcome. The feeding tube becomes a different thing as patients move through the various phases of their illness, due to changes in their condition, living circumstances, and concerns and values. There are very different appreciations of the way the feeding tube changes the body’s appearance and feel. Some patients refuse it because they feel it disfigures their body, whereas others are indifferent to its appearance. Our conclusion is that these differences are difficult to grasp with a quantitative study designs because ‘matters of taste’ and values are not distributed in a population in the same ways as physiological responses to medication. Effect studies assume physiological responses to be more or less the same for everyone, with only gradual differences. Our analysis of quality in daily life, however, shows that what a treatment comes to be and how it is valued shows shows generalities for subgroups rather than populations.

Concepts: Scientific method, Psychology, Sociology, Research, Qualitative research, Meaning of life, Quantitative research


“Thinking too much”, and variations such as “thinking a lot”, are common idioms of distress across the world. The contextual meaning of this idiom of distress in particular localities remains largely unknown. This paper reports on a systematic study of the content and cause, consequences, and social response and coping related to the local terms |x'an n|a te and |eu-ca n|a te, both translated as “thinking a lot”, and was part of a larger ethnographic study among the Khwe of South Africa. Semi-structured exploratory interviews with community members revealed that “thinking a lot” refers to a common experience of reflecting on personal and interpersonal problems. Consequences were described in emotional, psychological, social, behavioral, and physical effects. Coping strategies included social support, distraction, and religious practices. Our contextualized approach revealed meanings and experiences of “thinking a lot” that go beyond a psychological state or psychopathology. The common experience of “thinking a lot” is situated in socio-political, economic, and social context that reflect the marginalized and displaced position of the Khwe. We argue that “thinking a lot” and associated local meanings may vary across settings, may not necessarily indicate psychopathology, and should be understood in individual, interpersonal, community, and socio-political dimensions.

Concepts: Psychology, Sociology, Cognition, Linguistics, South Africa, Meaning of life, Human behavior, Interpersonal relationships


Why do lab monkeys watch TV? This essay examines the preponderance of televisions in primate housing units based in academic research laboratories. Within such labs, television and related visual media are glossed as part-and-parcel of welfare or species-specific enrichment practices intended for research monkeys, a logic that is simultaneously historically- and ontologically-based. In many research centers, television figures prominently in the two inseparable domains of a lab monkey’s life: as a research tool employed during experiments, and in housing units where captive monkeys are said to enjoy watching TV during “down time.” My purpose is not to determine whether monkeys do indeed enjoy, or need, television; rather, I employ visual media as a means to uncover, and decipher, the moral logic of an ethics of care directed specifically at highly sentient creatures who serve as human proxies in a range of experimental contexts. I suggest that this specialized ethics of animal care materializes Mattingly’s notion of “moral laboratories” (Mattingly in Moral laboratories: family peril and the struggle for a good life, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2014), where television mediates the troublesome boundary of species difference among the simian and human subjects who cohabit laboratory worlds.

Concepts: Vacuum tube, Experiment, Primate, Laboratory, Labrador Retriever, Monkey, Simian, Television


Every summer, a group of role-playing gamers gathers in an American town. Dressed up as moon goddesses, mad scientists, and other fantastical characters, they act out elaborate, improvised narratives of transformation, destruction, and redemption. For several summers, this group, who I call the Journeyfolk, ran a camp for teenagers on the autism spectrum, engaging campers in therapeutic reconfigurations of self and social role. Through this folk healing practice, the meaning of autism was itself transformed; what had been a source of isolation became a source of commonality and community. This paper takes the camp as a case study for examining the co-productive relationship between culture and neurodiversity. Cognitive tendencies often found in autism are often thought to preclude socio-cultural participation. However, such tendencies can also facilitate the co-creation of innovative cultural spaces, through processes of affinity and affiliation. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork at the camp, I identify three sites of congruity between the culture of the camp and the cognitive and phenomenological experiences associated with autism, at which this “work of culture” (Obeysekere in The Work of Culture: Symbolic Transformation in Psychoanalysis and Anthropology, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1990) took place: the structure of social interactions within roleplaying games, the narratives enacted within these games, and the interpersonal relationships within which the games were embedded.

Concepts: Psychology, Sociology, Culture, Interpersonal relationship, Anthropology, Game, Roleplaying, Role-playing