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What Does a Psychological Anthropologist Do?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 01 November 2016
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A psychological anthropologist studies interactions between individuals and their culture. Researchers in this field explore the way cultural norms may shape psychology and perception. They also study the impact individuals have on their society, to learn more about how and why social changes occur. This discipline within the field of anthropology is taught at some colleges and universities, particularly those with programs that focus on cultural, rather than physical, anthropology.

As individuals grow up in specific cultures, they may internalize a variety of lessons from the people and places around them. These lessons can shape the way they think and behave. For example, young women growing up in cultures that believe very thin women are beautiful may be pressured to maintain a specific physical appearance. This pressure could contribute to the development of eating and exercise disorders, psychological conditions that may be shaped by social attitudes. A psychological anthropologist can look at how social pressures shape cognition.

Members of this field may study abnormal psychology in cultures around the world. A psychological anthropologist may look at behaviors considered normal and abnormal between cultures; in some regions, for example, suicide is not as highly stigmatized as it is in others. Psychological anthropologists can analyze how and why mental illnesses arise and how people with mental illness are treated in their home cultures. This field of study can also include the evaluation of how cultures respond to mental illness or irregular behavior.

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Researchers in psychological anthropology may choose from a variety of subject areas. They tend to specialize in particular regions or cultures, to develop a deep understanding of how these cultures work and the ways in which they interact with individuals. There may also be a specific interest in a particular phenomenon, such as early childhood psychology, or the psychology of working men and women. Cross-cultural studies performed by a psychological anthropologist may compare and contrast, evaluating differences in psychological development that may be created through cultural pressures.

The study of psychological anthropology can contribute to the development of more effective and appropriate mental health services. It can also help people who may interact with individuals from diverse backgrounds, or who do business in foreign countries. Understanding the Japanese work ethic and the psychology of Japanese workers, for example, would be important for a manager or CEO working in Japan as a representative of a foreign country. Likewise, teachers working with students from around the world might need training in early childhood development from the perspective of a psychological anthropologist to understand how to meet the needs of their students.

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