Madness and psychiatry in Latin America’s long nineteenth century

Authored by: Manuella Meyer

The Routledge History of Madness and Mental Health

Print publication date:  April  2017
Online publication date:  April  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138781603
eBook ISBN: 9781315202211
Adobe ISBN: 9781351784399


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To understand madness in Latin America as a scholarly inquiry one must flesh out the ways that mental illness became a problem for both state and civil societies, and how many nations turned to psychiatry for solutions over the course of the long nineteenth century. 1 This essay takes the medicalization of madness within a context characterized by social secularization and public health modernization as its departure point. While the historiography of madness and psychiatry remains less well developed in Latin America than in the rest of the Atlantic world, interest in the subject is growing as more historians of the region turn their attention to how issues of public health, mental health, and professionalization intersect with nationalism and state formation. This chapter is by no means an exhaustive investigation of the insightful and important work on the history of madness and psychiatry on Latin America produced both inside and outside the region. It engages a modest sample of notable works published within the past twenty-five years to understand convergences and divergences between and among Latin American sites and to argue that the “domestication of madness,” to borrow historian Andrew Scull’s term, 2 was part of many modernization processes. Many national reform movements, of which psychiatrists often formed part of the vanguard, were committed to these sorts of modernization projects as they sought to revitalize both state and nation in the name of “order and progress.” This essay is divided into four parts. Given that the work of theorist Michel Foucault casts a long shadow on the historiography of madness, most especially on the Anglophone scholarly literature, the first part provides a synopsis of Foucault’s study and how it has influenced others. This work serves as an intellectual scaffolding from which to understand both how the Anglophone history of mental illness and psychiatry borrows and departs from the Foucauldian tradition. Part two explores how historians of Latin America have been influenced by these texts, and how they have specifically used the language of public health to understand madness and psychiatry. Part three examines scholarly works on the management of insanity in Latin America by first examining the literature related to the colonial and postcolonial periods. This part specifically looks at texts on Spanish America and then Brazil. While the scholarly literature on Brazil, the majority of which is produced in-country, shares many analytical commonalities with Spanish America, the socio-cultural, political, and economic particularities of Brazilian history reveal unique perspectives on the history of madness and its treatment that can be instructive for historians of Latin America and other regions. In part four, I suggest research areas for possible expansion that may generate discussion among historians of Latin America so that a more synthetic engagement with histories of madness and its treatment within a dynamic ecology of care and social assistance may be possible.

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