Psychological Anthropology (Erchak)

Anthropology 339: Psychological Anthropology

Gerald M. Erchak
Skidmore College
AN 339, Spring 2001
TLC 207, WF 8:10-10

Goals of the course

  1. This course explores how individual selves as well as the behavior of individuals are shaped by culture and how different cultures tend to produce adults with characteristic personalities, selves, and behaviors. It could justifiably be retitled “Cross-Cultural Social Psychology.”
  2. Cultural relativism in behavior will be stressed throughout the course, e.g., is “abnormal” or “deviant” behavior in the U.S. also considered abnormal everywhere else?
  3. However, a universal human nature, biologically and evolutionarily based, is explicitly recognized as the basis for cultural variation.
  4. The evolution of the brain, the mind, and therefore human nature, will therefore be explored.
  5. We will focus primarily on psychological issues in nonliterate preindustrial non-Western societies but these examples will frequently be contrasted with similar examples from Western and/or North American society.
  6. A principal goal of the course is to inform students about the forces shaping their own behaviors, selves, and personalities.
  7. The arguments are made within an evolutionary-psychological theoretical framework emphasizing biocultural evolution and psychocultural adaptation, i.e., personalities, selves, and behavior are shown to be adapted to ancestral and contemporary environments, both natural and cultural. This framework is an extension of #4 above.
  8. In addition, personalities, selves, and behavior are constructed by culture and society.

The course is thus a complement and alternative to psychology courses on personality and the self.


You must be a junior or senior to take this course. You must have satisfactorily completed at least two (preferably quite a few more) courses in psychology or anthropology (other than archeology), or any combination of these.



Mithen – The Prehistory of the Mind

Herdt – The Sambia: Ritual and Gender in New Guinea

Lancy – Playing on the Mother-Ground: Cultural Routines for Children’s Development

Erchak – The Anthropology of Self and Behavior

Cronk, Chagnon, Irons – Adaptation and Human Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective (AHB)


Midterm – 20%

Second Exam – 30%

Paper and Team Presentation – 30%

Participation – 20%

The paper is a library research paper that describes and analyzes your segment of your Team Presentation; the topic is any psychological topic or issue, within the broad areas described below, treated culturally, anthropologically, or evolutionarily. It may, if you wish, be on a topic different from that of your Team Presentation. The paper should focus at least in part on non-Western, nonliterate, preindustrial society if at all possible, e.g., if you decide to write on, say, “anxiety,” at least one of your illustrative examples should be a foraging, or horticultural, or pastoralist culture. The paper is 12-15 pp. and must be properly footnoted and referenced following the style of the American Anthropologist, readily available in the library. Since no other style is acceptable, and non-conforming papers will be severely penalized, it would be wise to check with me if you don’t “get it.” Papers must involve references to articles from scholarly journals, not just books. At least a half-dozen books and articles are necessary for a good research paper. My office is not a library. You may not utilize on-line sources of any kind!Paper topics must be handed in by Feb. 2. All papers are due, typed, by class time on Apr. 20, regardless of when your Team Presentation is scheduled. Late papers are dropped one letter grade for each day late. Any “Incompletes” (not recommended) based on failure to complete the paper start off minus one letter grade. Handing in papers early is definitely encouraged.

The “Team Presentation” will be discussed early in the term but will involve an oral presentation of some sort by an assigned group of about four or five students, to be delivered at the conclusion of the relevant course topic. The manner of presentation is completely up to your group members. Each team presentation will be about 40 minutes, including class discussion. The idea is for your group to become “authorities” on your subject. Five groups will be selected from the following areas:Evolution of Brain/Mind/Behavior, Adaptation and Human Behavior, Socialization/Development, Sex/Gender, Sexuality, Behavioral/EmotionalMental Disorder, States of Consciousness, Cognition, and/or Emotion.; different topic areas may be possible as well. Each group will examine and prepare a presentation on the cross-cultural or anthropological literature on each area. You will police, and recommend grades for, each other.

I want the course to be discussion-based: come prepared to discuss the readings each day.

Attendance is mandatory. More than two absences (other than bona fide medical excuses) will lower your grade significantly. I take attendance often, and will do so at the beginning of each class; if you’re late, it is your job to let me know after class.

My office is TLC 226. Office hours are TTh 11-12 and WF 10-11.

Topics and Schedule (all dates approximate and subject to change)

Jan. 24-26

Introduction to the course. The study of the self and personality in culture (theoretical and historical background).

Reading Assignment

Herdt – Foreword, Introduction; Erchak – Preface, Ch. 1; Mithen – Preface, Ch. 1; AHB – Chs. 1, 2.

Jan. 31-Feb. 9

Brain and mind evolution.

Reading Assignment

Mithen – Chs. 2-8; AHB – Chs. 12, 13, 14.

Feb. 2

Hand in paper topics; teams selected.

Feb. 14-23

Psychocultural adaptation.

Reading Assignment

Erchak – Ch. 1; Mithen – Chs. 9-11, Epilogue; Lancy – Chs. 1-4; AHB – Chs. 3, 4, 6, 9, 10.

Feb. 28-Mar. 2

Socialization: the formation of the self in culture.

Reading Assignment

Herdt – Ch. 4; Erchak – Ch. 2; Lancy – Chs. 5-8.

Mar. 2

Evolution, Adaptation, and Socialization Team Presentations

Mar. 7

Midterm Exam

Mar. 9-28

Gender, culture, sex, and sexuality.

Reading Assignment

Herdt – all; Erchak – Ch. 3; Lancy – Chs. 9, 10; AHB – Chs. 7, 15.

Mar. 28

Sex/Gender and Sexuality Team Presentations

Mar. 30-Apr. 11

Psychocultural order and disorder: mental and behavioral.

Reading Assignment

Herdt – Chs. 5 (review), 6 (review), 7 (review), Afterword (review); Erchak – Chs. 4, 5.

Apr. 11

Behavioral/Emotional Disorders and States of Consciousness Teams

Apr. 13-18

Cognition and emotion: the thinking, feeling self.

Reading Assignment

Erchak – Ch. 6, Epilogue; Mithen – Chs. 4, 8-11 (review); Lancy – Chs. 1, 2 (review).

Apr. 20

Term papers due; Cognition and Emotion Team Presentations

Apr. 25

Review class.

Reading Assignment

AHB – Ch. 21

Apr. 27

Second Exam

Copyright © 2001 Gerald M. Erchak

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