THE ETHNOGRAPHIC STUDY OF CULTURAL KNOWLEDGE OF "MENTAL DISORDER"
Illness and medicine are among a limited number of topical domains which cross-cultural researchers have for some time described as organized bodies of cultural knowledge (e.g., Clements 1932; and see Conklin 1972:363–392 for a bibliography). One reason for this is that illness is viewed universally as an intrusive disruption of body, person and community which requires explanation and corrective action (Fabrega 1974) and thus gives rise to some form of folk theory as a basis for interpreting or “making sense” of that experience. While particular definitions of illness may vary widely, concern with illness as an area of problematic human experience (and as a topic for folk theories) is commonly expressed in ordinary conversation across cultures. Thus, interpretations of illness events are an important focus for comparative research on social, cultural and cognitive questions generally, as well as for the investigation of medical issues. Just as cultural understandings about social organization may be most visible during “conflict” situations in which normative, desirable relations are discussed more openly or deliberately, so cultural understandings about personhood and social behavior may be brought closer to the surface of natural discourse by illness events which evoke interpretations of personal dysfunction or deviations from social norms. The ethnographic study of cultural knowledge of illness attempts to discover and represent conceptual models which underly the construction of meaningful interpretations of illness. As discussed below, this enterprise must venture well beyond the narrow confines of “illness and medicine”.