Bridging Psychiatric and Anthropological Approaches: The Case of “Nerves” in the United States



Psychiatrists and anthropologists have taken distinct analytic approaches when confronted with differences between emic and etic models for distress: psychiatrists have translated folk models into diagnostic categories whereas anthropologists have emphasized culture-specific meanings of illness. The rift between psychiatric and anthropological research keeps “individual disease” and “culture” disconnected and thus hinders the study of interrelationships between mental health and culture. In this article we bridge psychiatric and anthropological approaches by using cultural models to explore the experience of nerves among 27 older primary care patients from Baltimore, Maryland. We suggest that cultural models of distress arise in response to personal experiences, and in turn, shape those experiences. Shifting research from a focus on comparing content of emic and etic concepts, to examining how these social realities and concepts are coconstructed, may resolve epistemological and ontological debates surrounding differences between emic and etic concepts, and improve understanding of the interrelationships between culture and health. [“nerves,” cultural models, metaphor, psychiatry, embodiment]