Tanya Luhrmann is the Max Palevsky Professor in the Committee on Human Development. She trained at the University of Cambridge (PhD 1986), taught for many years at the University of California, San Diego, and joined the University of Chicago faculty in 2000. Her work focuses on the social construction of psychological experience, and the way that social practice alters psychological mechanism, particularly in the domain of what some would call the “irrational.” She is an anthropologist, and uses primarily ethnographic methods to identify the salient features of the social context. Her first project is a detailed study of the way apparently reasonable people come to believe apparently unreasonable beliefs (Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft, Harvard, 1989). Her second project explored the apparently irrational self-criticism of a postcolonial India elite, the result of colonial identification with the colonizers (The Good Parsi, Harvard 1996). Her third book identified two cultures with the American profession of psychiatry and examined the way these different cultures encouraged two different experiences of empathy and two different understandings of mental illness (Of Two Minds, Knopf, 200). Her current work looks at the experience of voices and visions both in the new style of American religion and among psychiatric clients, and the way the interpretation of these phenomena may affect the experience of God (on the one hand) and the identification, experience and outcome of psychiatric illness (on the other). She is a director of the Clinical Ethnography project in the Department of Comparative Human Development.
The presentation is based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork in the circuit of street, shelter, jail, hospital and transitional housing through which many Americans with psychotic illness pass. The question focusing the research is a long-standing puzzle: that many of those who could get help refuse to accept it. In Chicago, this refusal is striking. The wait for ordinary low-income housing (section 8 housing) is 84 months, but those with psychotic disorders can be housed in as short a time as two weeks. Yet many refuse. The default presumption has been that they refuse because they are ill, and so do not realize that they need the help. This presentation suggests a more complex answer, based on the ways in which homeless women come to interpret and make sense of psychotic symptoms.