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Emil Kraepelin and comparative sociocultural psychiatry.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.


Emil Kraepelin, well known as the principal designer of modern psychiatric nosology, is less well known for his pioneering work in comparative sociocultural psychiatry. This paper is trying to document Kraepelin's role as the inaugurator of systematic investigations into culture-dependent differences in psychopathology. Despite his many responsibilities as clinician, teacher, hospital administrator and scientific author, Kraepelin considered cross-cultural comparison of such importance that he spent considerable time on the preparation of then very cumbersome overseas expeditions. His first research journey in 1904 to Southeast Asia led to the programmatic formulation of comparative psychiatry as a scientific endeavour designed to contribute to the better understanding of psychopathological processes and to a comprehensive comparative ethnopsychology ("Voelkerpsychologie"). Kraepelin's main cross-cultural research project, planned to extend to seven non-European countries and to involve many foreign colleagues, was prevented by World War I and postwar complications. One year before his unexpected death, Kraepelin conducted comparative studies with American Indian, Afro-American and Latin American patients at psychiatric institutions in the United States, Mexico and Cuba in 1925. In his writings Kraepelin commented on certain differences in the incidence and presentation of psychopathological phenomena that he considered to be due to ethnic-cultural characteristics or social conditions. This paper discusses in detail Kraepelin's observations on the pathoplastic and pathogenic effects of cultural and social factors, and demonstrates the influence of his ideas on the development of modern social and transcultural psychiatry.

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