Last Updated 08 Apr 2020

Deviance, Psychiatry and Cultural Relativism

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The paper “Borderlands: Deviance, Psychiatry and Cultural Relativism” by Robert Bartholomew discusses cultural differences i. e. what is considered normal and rational in one culture may be considered abnormal in others. Therefore, the author analyzes different attitudes towards human actions (e. g. suicide), and provides overview of cultural relativism and psychiatry. The author’s thesis is that people interpret the world depending on their social and cultural context. He argues that science can’t be applied to identifying and treating abnormality.

Bartholomew says that normality is “not an objective given from which simple assessments of behaviour can be rendered independent of historical era, culture, or group”. (P. 36-37) Normality is defined by cultural background and cultures have their own interpretations what to consider rational or irrational. For example, suicide is not acceptable in Western countries, whereas it is considered normal in Japan. Further, Bartholomew defines cultural relativism as theory of knowledge which is responsible for working out criteria how to judge behaviour of other culture.

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It is not static and depends on circumstances. There are few standards of universal conduct to evaluate this or that society. The author claims that the problem of cultural relativism results in serious dilemmas for mental health professionals. Actually, psychiatric diagnoses don’t involve assessment of cultural development and influence. However, psychiatry is more interested in religious, social and cultural background than other medical fields. Bartholomew assumes that psychiatry is the most contentious medical branch.

In psychiatry ‘illness’ is defined as experiencing living problems, rather than discernible cerebral disease that affects human behaviour. The negative moment is that Western medicine is still transmitting social and professional stereotypes constituting its own values and norms. Summing up, the author recommends – when to judge whether the person is normal, it is necessary to get acquainted with his social world and cultural background. Works Cited Bartholomew, Robert. “Borderlands: Deviance, Psychiatry and Cultural Relativism”. Skeptic, 8, 3 (2000): 36-40.

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Deviance, Psychiatry and Cultural Relativism. (2016, Jul 21). Retrieved from

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