Foreign objects: Cultural psychotherapy in theory and practice

Karen Merle Seeley, University of Pennsylvania


Over the past several decades, there have been numerous attempts by anthropologists and psychologists to integrate cultural and psychological perspectives on human behavior and consciousness. These interdisciplinary endeavors, however, have not directly addressed psychotherapists who treat people from other cultures, nor have their relevant findings been synthesized and adapted for clinicians. As a result, cultural perspectives remain largely external to the theory and practice of psychotherapy. Responding to the clear need to move beyond monocultural psychotherapeutic models, this thesis explores the theoretical and practical requisites of a cultural psychotherapy. It examines the ways in which traditional psychotherapy's universalistic premises, culture-specific values, and western clinical methods limit its utility in the treatment of persons from other cultures. It discusses current culture theory as well as anthropological findings on cross-cultural variation in selfhood, child development, language and emotion which would inform a cultural psychotherapy. Extensive interviews with six nonwestern patients who underwent psychotherapy with American psychotherapists raise a variety of new questions concerning the applicability and efficacy of psychotherapy for nonwestern patients. By providing detailed evidence of specific cultural dimensions and dynamics that emerged in their cross-cultural mental health treatments, they demonstrate the inadequacy of traditional models of psychotherapy, which routinely erase the cultural significations of patients' behaviors, thoughts, feelings, and fantasies. The thesis concludes that therapists must acquire a broader understanding both of the potential cultural inflections of such classical psychotherapeutic concepts as transference, resistance, and therapeutic alliance, and of important cross-cultural variation in such fundamental psychotherapeutic concerns as the construction of the self, language, development, and emotion. The thesis also advocates adapting ethnographic and sociolinguistic methods to implement a cultural psychotherapy, and to improve the psychotherapeutic treatment of people from other cultures by psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and clinical social workers.

Subject Area

Psychotherapy|Cultural anthropology|Social work

Recommended Citation

Seeley, Karen Merle, "Foreign objects: Cultural psychotherapy in theory and practice" (1997). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9814914.