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date: 08 December 2022

Hysteria locked

Hysteria locked

  • Jocelyn MarrowJocelyn MarrowHealth Studies, Westat, Inc.


This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

Even though hysteria is no longer a diagnostic category in Western medical systems, the phenomena to which it referred have remained productive of anthropological deliberation. This may be due to the dramatic and highly variable nature of hysterias and related afflictions as observed. Hysterias are shape-shifters, with signs and symptoms varying according to their historical and cultural niches. Further, hysterias demand notice and response from those who witness them. Interpretation is the sine qua non of hysteria, rendering it irresistible to vernacular and scholarly meaning-making.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, hysteria was a diagnosis commonly given by physicians practicing in European and North American medical traditions to individuals (mostly women) whose wide-ranging motoric symptoms were thought to be caused by psychological distress. In the present, hysteria is no longer a medical diagnosis; it persists in common English language usage as a pejorative term to refer to excessive emotional displays. Contemporary medical diagnostics replace hysteria with a bevy of psychosomatic illness diagnoses, including conversion disorder, dissociative reaction, and functional neurological disorder, among others.

There are at least three ways that anthropological scholarship engages with hysteria. The first, and historically earliest, applies the postulated psychodynamics of hysteria to explain spirit possession—the phenomenon in which an individual’s body is engulfed by that of a supernatural being such as the soul of a deceased human, a divinity, or a demon. This anthropological literature postulates that spirit possession involves altered states of consciousness, such as hypnosis or trance, to explain the belief that the self may be overwhelmed by a will not its own. The idea that another entity is speaking and acting in place of the host’s volition allows the host to express anger at injustices perpetrated against them. This genre of writing about hysteria and hysteria-like phenomena argues that it is a “weapon of the weak.”

The second way in which scholarship engages with hysteria is through examining the politics of the labels “hysteria” and “hysterical,” and documenting how powerful people may deploy the label “hysteria” to disparage the complaints of marginalized or disempowered people. In these instances, anthropologists have examined the event, or series of events, to argue that the grievances provoking complaint are real and serious, rather than exaggerated or “all in the heads” of those making them. A third strand of research emerges from fieldwork in medical anthropology and examines the contemporary sociocultural contexts in which people are given hysteria-like diagnoses (such as conversion disorder or dissociative trance disorder) in clinical settings. These studies are based on fieldwork in diverse clinical settings relying upon Western medical categories and treatments.


  • Sociocultural Anthropology