Tanner, Dr. Ralph E.S.

    We can presume that as human cultural understandings evolve and probably even further back in the evolutionary ethology of primates, societies and the individuals within them have not only obviously experienced multiple distresses but have developed ways of coping with their misfortunes.

    We can also presume that these methods of coping have had the characteristics of social mutations. Individuals have constantly produced innovative ways of dealing with distress but only a minority of these perhaps under the influence of charismatic men and women were found to be successful or adaptive enough to become widely used and popular. These practices became established within the evolving cultural paradigms of those societies over many social generations and have done so without literacy. 

    So we can presuppose that whatever ways for the reduction of physiological and psychological distress that remain in the contemporary practises of tribal cultures are the socially considered successful survivors of constantly changing traditional systems. They would not have survived had the people considered them to be functionally useless in social, religious and economic terms.

    It seems likely that these African and Asian tribal peoples are not consciously aware that there are changes going on all the time in not only their practices but in their associated thinking. In considering their ways of coping with distress they are likely to state that this is how they have always traditionally coped with their problems. Perhaps a contributory factor to their self-assessments of success is this assumption that they are doing what has been time tested traditionally. A conscious sense of stability within an unconscious experience of change. 

Restrictions on social science evaluations.

    The social scientist by training is not only working within a secular Western paradigm of understanding but has been subjected to social distancing factors which go a long way to prevent them accepting any equivalences in what would class as the successes created by divination and spirit possession and by psychotherapy. Any evaluation by an Indian or German psychologist starts from ‘us’ and ‘them’ role positions.

    The tribal or at least quasi-traditional systems of coping with personal distress are rarely seen or indeed evaluated as the equivalent of modern psychological understandings or methods. For psychotherapists the social distance between themselves as highly trained professionals working from a consulting room according to standards set by their colleagues and an uneducated tribal person often claiming their skill comes from spiritual connections is just too great for both rational and personally acceptable consideration. How could this be otherwise when psychotherapists stress their professional qualifications for doing their work while the tribal therapist is almost always working within a religious paradigm of some type of spirit possession, which the former does not accept as existing.

    The tribally situated or urban diviner claiming to be possessed by a non-human reality is usually seen as duping the credulous people who are consulting them because of the rational impossibility of any such communication. This is a seemingly impenetrable intellectual and social barrier between two fundamentally different patterns of thought.

    Their cognitively start from different premises and use different linguistic codes since tribal therapist’s understandings come from total emersion in a single continuing cultural environment. On the other hand the psychotherapist lives a dyadic existence in which their professional on stage cognition is separate to their off stage one by the social barrier of the consulting room door (Goffman.1969). 

    Fernandez wrote ‘While I was, I think’ listening carefully to the disclosures in other arenas of African religious life, for some reason I conceived of divination as an arena of rather mechanical probably fraudulent communication between gods and man and between diviners and clients. The degree which my unexamined positivistic attitude towards divination, my intellectual impatience with it as an explanatory activity and my suspicions of its probable fraudulence were a function of my own epistemological politics carrying an emotionally charged normative weight which protected from critical scrutiny knowledge of the role of interests and power in producing Western scientists and African diviners’ (Fernandez.1991). 

    If this is the mental and cultural block of a sophisticated anthropologist we can see that it would be a virtual impossibility for a psychotherapist to accept a tribal diviner as a professional colleague. It takes an act of imaginative will-power to accept as a reality the metaphysical beliefs of others with whom the social scientists trained in a Western framework of thought has no cultural affinities. There is a failure to remember that ‘if men define situations as real it is real in its consequences ‘ (Thomas and Tghomas.1928). Although this statement was made about the magical beliefs of American children, it has an almost universal application and it is particularly applicable to the beliefs and practices of tribal people, which have a far longer functional history than that of contemporary psychotherapy.

    Those social scientists who have been present in the curative sessions of tribal therapists are usually struck by the social reality of what they are witnessing. There is a feeling of participation in a process which is not discontinuous with what is occurring elsewhere which is certainly the case with the shutting of the consulting room door. 


    This Western system of mental care is not only a recent innovation in scientific endeavour to help mankind but in time no more than a minute fraction of the time that traditional systems of distress management have been developing and operating with their record of success attributed to them by public opinion. 

    This way of coping with distress was invented as much as created by Freud and developed by Adler and Jung. A top down system of thinking and practice, based on the idea that distress is largely within the individual psyche. This can be reduced if not solved by making the subconscious consciously aware that their experience of distress is caused and maintained by this very personal psychological malfunctioning. 

    In comparing psychotherapy with its predecessors in tribal cultures and its quasi-traditional successes in contemporary tribal and urban industrial societies, there can be no statistically relevant figures for success or failure as distress and cure cannot be seen exclusively in terms of physiological change as if we were dealing with disease. This system has to be seen in terms of society wide functional utility rather than whether it is successful or not in the individualism of case histories.

    It is a personal and exclusive relationship between the psychotherapist and the person consulting them in a socially isolated and enclosed space, the consulting room which does not have any parallels to the social experiences of the patients. It is a created ritualised situation with the patient lying on a couch without eye contact with the psychotherapist.

    The psychotherapist is an outsider to the social environments from which the patient comes, separated from the patient by a lengthy professional training which has no part of their cognitive and social understandings and indeed occurs under conditions of social segregation. There is a basic social distancing between patient and psychotherapist created by their professional aura as well as accent, costume, immediate environment and even such seemingly peripheral factors as smell. There may also be semantic difficulties in the on-going use of a supposedly shared language as was shown in English by Bernstein’s development of elaborated and restricted linguistic codes (Bernstein.1975). Following such distinctions it would seem unlikely that those with a restricted use of language, however defined would find it difficult to express their thoughts verbally such as the Apache American Indians who are distinctively reticent in comparison to white Americans (Basso.1970). 

    In a study of Buddhism in Myanmar (Spiro.1971) it was pointed out that only a very small proportion of those claiming to be Buddhist are in fact Buddhist since they are in a religious faith rather than a philosophical system. The vast majority of mankind see the spirit world to have an influence on their lives and in Eastern and tribal cultures this continues to be an important element in their cognitive understandings. 

    Any course of psychotherapy is extremely lengthy and for this use of any professional time very costly. This has to be paid by the patient or some other source of funding and of course the patient has to see that this is also a useful use of their time and social resources. Unless the patient is seen as interesting to the psychotherapist as would have appeared to be the case with some of Freud’s patients, it would appear to be treatment used by the rich and those who have the time to be involved in such regular commitments. Whatever conclusions we may reach about this systems it is one that deals with small minorities in atypical surroundings.

    This is a secular way of looking at human distress and few psychotherapists would start from any shared agreements over any patient’s religious overt or covert understandings. As such it might appeal to committed rather than social Buddhists who have not turned the Buddha’s agnostic philosophical system into a religion. There is at least a partial distancing from patients who might have little commitment to public religion but have their private spiritualities, the ‘Sheilaisms’ of personal religion which individual Americans have been shown to practice.(Bellah.1986). 

    It may even be that this individualised spirituality which is emerging in Western cultures is a passing phase. It has existed all along elsewhere in largely non-literate public religion and private spirituality particularly in tribal societies where there can be no written orthodoxies.

    Psychotherapy sees the individual mind as a creation of psycho-biological evolution so that the ’devils’ in the mind are more or less of their own creation. The main drawbacks to this understanding is that it seeks and in some cases successfully finds the cause of distress within the individual. This may be an artificial solution when those in distress are surrounded with what their society considers to be the ‘real’ causes.

Quasi-traditional psychotherapy.

    We do not know what methods for the elimination or reduction of distress may have occurred in the mists of past time for which there are no records. We do know that all societies have had men and women who are considered by public opinion to be able to reduce distress by combinations of achieved and ascribed abilities. They are accepted as capable of diagnosing and relieving distress by what are largely psychosomatic means aided by a minimalist use of a local pharmacopeia because of fears of being accused on poisoning, We can be certain that while these specialists exist, their methods in general and in individual treatments have very little uniformity. It could not be otherwise when there is no keeping of records or delimited systems of training.

    We can conclude from currently observable behaviour that certain factors have contributed to the survival of what those involved consider to be traditional methods. This leads people in their millions to come from their fields and the streets of urban slums and suburbia in the hope of having their distress identified and reduced in its in finite variety these multiple alternative systems are almost universally popular from the public opinion conclusions that they yield success. The numbers of healers involved in these ‘unprofessional’ healing systems must be in the hundreds of thousands. In Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania it was estimated (Swantz.1974) that on any one day the numbers going to local healers exceeded those going to all official and non-official social welfare agencies combined. 

    Both the participants are using the same linguistic codes either in their semantic understandings or in the fact that the traditional therapist avoids any possibility of the patient understanding what is said by using talking in tongues which the therapist then has to interpret in dialogue with the patient.

    The therapist from his or her understandings of the culture from which the patient comes lays out the various possibilities which might account for their distress and then through this process of dialogue allowing the patients themselves to decide which of the causes are more likely. 

    The therapists acquire their expertise from a combination of social and sympathetic understandings and the acceptance of the realities of jealousy from co-wives, neighbours, fellow employees, mother-in-law and business rivals and a natural flair for the understandings of what might be wrong possible aided by a working apprenticeship with an older diviner. It is in general local knowledge locally acquired.

    There is of course some social distance between the two but it is one that is an already existing separation which has always been accepted and is not a form of separation which has been imported from outside that culture. The therapist may wear a distinctive costume or carry a selection of amulets round their necks or arms, but these are seen as accepted signs of their ‘professional’ qualifications.

    The consultations are usually single ones rather than a course of treatment, untimed and not slotted into appointments with payment by results. It is both inexpensive and convenient. While it may not be locally convenient as many prefer to visit a therapist who does not know their personal background but who they know about from their reputation.


    We cannot compare these two systems of helping distressed people in terms of scientifically validated results because this is not possible without initial definitions and of what has happened at the termination of treatment. The success or failure of psychotherapy can rarely be isolated from the realities of social environments. It is perhaps better and certainly easier to balance personal distress by identifying causes in interpersonal terms than to isolate difficulties as occurring within the individual mind. Medical conditions are not often involved which could have been recorded by qualified physicians.

    We are left much the same methods of assessment as would be used for the sales of something materially available; we can only have severely qualified guesses as to why people may or may not purchase something which is available locally. Thus we have Western psychotherapy rarely available because its professionalism and cost-benefit factors make it impossible to have any general appeal and application, 

    Its methodology may introduce ideas which have no place in the intellectual thinking of most cultures outside the Western world. An attempt to explain the Oedipus complex in their language to a group of clever Sukuma elders in Tanzania resulted in replies that suggested that they thought it was a European joke which they could not understand or just plain stupid. It seems likely that had they been asked about the possible relevance in their lives of the Chinese concepts of Yin and Yang that their reactions would have been much the same and yet these ideas and the cultural thinking involving the issue of ‘hungry’ ghosts causing distress has maintained its relevance for a very long time. 

    These Sukuma were men who understand easily enough the reasoning behind much anthropological thinking such as the unity of alternate generations, joking relationships and mother-in-law avoidance. It would seem that each tribal society and those with more larger populations regardless of its level and range of intellectual sophistication will have its own range of socially acceptable logic paralleled by a very large range of functionally useful and equally efficient practices which have no identifiable scientific validity 

    These clever and articulate men would reason that there was no rational reason for going inside a person’s brain when they had always acted in their solution to disputes that this was both unreachable and beyond comprehension and could not be brought into their deliberations. They would argue that the causes of distress lay in social relationships and only in rare cases could an individual be definable as mad and out of social control. The Western world has schizophrenia as a disabling and largely incurable psychiatric affliction while it seems likely that some diviners in their relationships with the spirit world might be diagnosable as schizophrenics but would nevertheless have useful social functions. (Field.1960).

    Jealousy and malevolence are realities which are universally recognised by social behaviour in the outside world. What goes on in the human mind is no doubt a continuing but very variable reality which is not seen by most people as more important than the fact that they are physically or psychosomatically ill, their in-laws are hostile, a child has died and their business is under pressure. 

    The tribal therapy objectifies cause and this allows the sufferer to take counter measures in the social world in which they are living. Their belief in the diagnosed cause is just as valid as their belief in the success of counter measures. Since there are no written standards by which cause and counter measures can be evaluated other than by public opinion, all the methods are in the processes of constant adjustment because these therapists want to attract and maintain custom in what is a competitive market If we start thinking that these practices are just duping the public then we should surely apply the same standards of evaluation to the theories behind Western psychotherapy. No one has scientifically seen a spirit that possesses or wizardry in action and certainly not an Oedipus complex.

    Tribal traditional therapies and all their modern forms in fringe cults have evolved in the service of their clients with conspicuous success not by the standards of science but by the fact of their universal popularity and possible psychosomatic reactions. For most people in most cultures cures based on what they think are traditional methods and idea have preferred to externalise their misfortunes rather than turn to the convolutions of introspection. 


    Basso,K.H.(1970). ‘To give up on words. Silence in Western Apache culture’. South- Western Journal Anthropology. 26(3): 213-30.
Bellah,R.N. (1986). Habits of the heart. Individualism and commitment in American life. University of California. Berkeley.
Bernstein,B.(1975). Class, codes and control. Routledge and Kegan Paul. London.
Fernandez,J.W. (1991). ‘After’ in P.M.Peake.(ed). African divination systems. Ways of knowing. Indiana University Press. Bloomington. 213-220. 
Field,M.Y. (1960). The search for security. An ethno-psychiatric study of rural Ghana. Faber. London.
Goffman,E. (1969). The presentation of self in everyday life. Penguin. Harmondsworth.
Spiro,M.E. (91971). Buddhism and Society. A great tradition and its Burmese vicissitudes. Allen and Unwin. London.
Swantz,L.(1974). The role of the medical man among the Zaramo of Dar es salaam. Unpublished Dphil. University of Dar es Salaam.

ISSN: 2249 3433


The word tribe is variously used in literature to denote a community on the basis of homogeneity. Originally many autochthonous communities who were identified by similar culture, social organisation and governance, living away from the main stream life of a country, were mentioned as tribe by their colonial rulers and Western scholars. Many such communities have moved towards the mainstream lifestyle so that they may no longer be identified as secluded, underdeveloped people with queer customs. This has happened to all areas of the world where tribal communities live. Still, many tribal communities lead their lives in very primitive ways devoid of the techno-economic glamour of contemporary civilization. These communities are labeled as "Primitive Tribal Groups". Indian Government has identified such tribal groups to give special attention to their development, whereas in the Indian Constitution all the tribal groups are recognized as "scheduled tribes".


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