September 26 (Week 6): Asylums across the Atlantic: Insanity, Colonialism, and Community

This week we will focus on the transatlantic asylum movement: its goals, its connections to colonialism, and the interaction between asylums and communities.  We will also consider the importance of asylums within disability history and historiography.

Please use the comment function to post two discussion questions about this week’s readings by Thursday at 2 pm.  Focus on intriguing or controversial points in the readings that you think will spark discussion.  Strong discussion questions are open-ended, engage with major points in author(s)’ arguments, and are not factual in nature.

Please also post one of the following:

  • a short description (1-3 sentences) of your “muddiest point,” that is, what important point of the author’s argument did you have trouble grasping
  • your “most interesting connection” for this week’s reading

If you refer to a specific point or quote in one of the readings, please provide the author and page number.



1)     Michel Foucault, “The Great Confinement” in Madness & Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, pp. 38-64 (MavSpace)

2)     Jonathan Sadowsky, Imperial Bedlam: Institutions of Madness in Colonial Southwest Nigeria (University of California Press, 1999)

3)     Richard C. Keller, “Pinel in the Maghreb: Liberation, Confinement, and Psychiatric Reform in French North Africa,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 79:3 (2005): 459-99 (MavSpace)

4)     James E. Moran, “Asylum in the Community: Managing the Insane in Antebellum America,” History of Psychiatry (1998): 217-240 (MavSpace)

7 Responses to “September 26 (Week 6): Asylums across the Atlantic: Insanity, Colonialism, and Community”

  1. Dalton Boyd says:

    Question 1: In James Moran’s Asylum in the Community, Moran discussed how communities usually dealt with the “insane” and how asylums became part of how Americans dealt with the “insane.” A common worry about asylums, during this time, came from the community mistrusting that it would be effective. Could this mistrust stem from the failure of the containment houses in Europe just about hundred years before, as described by Michel Foucalt’s The Great Confinement? Some of the definitions of the “insane” during this time included being a social deviant or being unable to support yourself. Does the modern definition of insanity show any similarity with these past ideas about insanity, since those who are insane and cannot support themselves are usually institutionalized? Juries and judges during the antebellum era had a big voice on confining people or appointing people as guardians. Why was this system allowed to overrule the voice of psychiatrists when these guardians could abuse their power?
    Question 2: In Richard Keller’s Pinel in the Maghreb, Keller discussed the establishment of French asylums in to North Africa. These institutions were to relieve the land of the criminally insane and to test new methods of treating the insane. During this time period, eugenics, and the concept of genetic racial differences that made whites superior, was popular in the science communities of Europe and the United States. So how could the French experiment on these North Africans, in an attempt to see if new methods would work on the “insane” in France, when some believed that there was a genetic difference between these two groups of people? Also, this form of treatment of the insane was full of neglect and failure that French institutions had suffered for a long time under. So how was the colonial adaptation of this system supposed to rekindle and fix this failed system? How could they expect different results in treating the insane when they were doing the exact same thing over again? Was it an attack of how North Africans treated their insane and, if so, did both methods prove ineffective in treating the insane?

    Muddiest point: Foucalt discussed how the pre-modern era Europe committed various “disabled” and poor people. In these containment sites these people learned the values of working. So is this a predecessor of moral treatment that became popular in the 19th century treatment of the “insane?”

  2. Lydia Towns says:

    1. In “Imperial Bedlam”, Sadowsky alludes to an idea held during the late Victorian era that primitive societies did not have mental illness. While he does show that this idea has no historical backing, the fact that this idea was prominent in certain circles during the late 19th early 20th centuries is interesting. This idea is similar to the one Briggs discusses in “the Race of Hysteria” which presents primitive women as being more fertile and having easier pregnancies. Both of these ideas seem to be countercultural in that they present primitive, less civilized societies, has having an area that is superior to civilized society. I find it very interesting that these ideas would take root during a time when people believed that society was evolving through civilization into a greater society.

    2. James Moran offers an interesting perspective of community care among antebellum agrarian society. He carefully shows that, for the most part, farmers who were considered insane were taken care of by a family member or a neighbor who had been appointed as guardian. The guardian would then work to nurse the farmer back to health while seeing to the farm. In all of his case studies Moran shows that community care was the preferred method, but the majority of his case studies deal with farmers who were considered insane due to their inability to conduct their affairs. He does not offer much of a discussion on those who were violent or considered criminally insane. I would have appreciated it if he had given a more balanced look at the insane farmers, how many were violent, and in these cases was community care preferred or did the majority of these end up in an asylum?

    Interesting point: I find it interesting that in antebellum agrarian societies a person was considered insane if he could no longer farm or conduct sound business, and that in Nigeria, in the early 20th century, one of the key indicators of insanity was public undressing. If makes me wonder what these societies would think of current society, with so many people unable to maintain a sound budget and with many in society going about in clothing that would be considered as undergarments in past generations.

  3. Cory says:

    Foucault’s chapter discusses the rise of confinement as a means to control the poor and the mentally ill (two groups who are often entangled) during the 17th century, suggesting that the practice was a response an abundance in potential laborers in relation to available employment opportunities. Unfortunately, Foucault does not (at least in this chapter) discuss completely the shifting and emerging economic forces happening at this time. Is the process he describes related to nascent capitalism, in the form of mercantilism, during this period? Does this confinement based partly on labor surplus have an impact or foreshadow the advent of the enclosure movement and the Industrial Revolution?

    In Imperial Bedlam, Sadowsky described the ways in which insanity is politicized in a colonial context, paying special attention to the writings and behaviors of those who were deemed insane in colonial Nigeria. Keller’s article, on the other hand, views the practice of psychiatry in French North Africa within the internal politics of the field, arguing that psychiatrists viewed the colonies as a “blank slate” on which they could reform and perfect their methods. Can these arguments overlap and coexist, helping to create an over-arching theory concerning mental illness in a colonial setting, or do elements of the two conflict in ways that have to be rectified to make sense of what is going on?

    My last question is both a muddiest point and directed at tying this week’s readings to the previous ones. What is the relationship between mental illness and disability history (or for that matter, studies) as a whole? It ties into previous questions I have posed regarding physical reality vs construction in disability, and mental illness seems to be an area in which constructedness is most prominent, possibly only because of our limitations in understanding how the human brain works on a biological level. This question was prompted by a statement Sadowsky makes on page 111: “… it may be precisely for those diseases whose biological reality makes their ‘constructedness’ less obvious that constructivist approaches may be most fruitful.” This seems counterintuitive to me.

  4. Robert Caldwell says:

    1. Readings this week focus on asylums on both sides of the Atlantic. Does a focus on institutions like the asylum skew the way we understand mental illness and lead us to further entrenchment in a medical variant or a Foucaultian-social control model of disability, even as it illuminates broader state-colonial policies and the new ways in which mental illness is constructed within historical contingencies? Isn’t the point of disability history to free us from the narrow confines of examining institutions, social policy and medical practices?

    2. The readings convincingly argue that families often opted for home care over medical assylums, and for a variety of reasons, “old,” non-scientific, indigenous or community understandings of mental illness persisted even in the face of medical imperialism and the drive for modernization. As Historians how might we avoid conflating ascendant ideas of an age with the lived realities?

    3. The readings indicate numerous contradictions in the colonial and modernizing enterprises. One major contradiction is the belief that scientists were working with a “blank slate,” despite their constant affirmation of the gulf between themselves and their patients. How can an examination of contradictions shed new light on old questions and help us raise new ones as well?

    Muddy Point/ Connections

    Sadowski and Keller both frame Nigerians and North African Muslims as the Europeans’ exotic other. They emphasize colonial anxieties with British notions of “African difference,” or French orientalism, whereby Arab and Berber s are melded into an orientalist gaze of “homogeneity of personality” whereby “Algerian, Muslim, and “indigenous North African” (despite supposed noticeable psychological aspect of national character in Tunisians, Algerians, and Moroccans)became interchangeable in the colonial imagination. However, the authors stop short of identifying these Africans’ culture as statistically abnormal, or Islam as a disability, as such, under Imperialism. Certainly, Africans and Muslims would reject a self-identification as disabled as an insult, but from an “etic” investigation of modes of colonial perception, might we not arrive at a conclusion that disabled are subaltern and subaltern are disabled?

  5. Jacque Tinkler says:

    1. In Madness and Civilization Foucault makes the argument that 17th century thinking saw the confinement of the poor, disabled, and insane as a moral issue. Those exhibiting any form of social uselessness were considered guilty of the ultimate sin of sloth, which in turn justified involuntary confinement involving forced labor and religious instruction. When a prisoner exhibited his ability or willingness to work, he was discharged as he then demonstrated that he once again accepted and supported society’s ethics. Discuss how this contrasts with the attitude toward and treatment of the insane in rural antebellum America–a society which also based its judgment of an individual on whether or not he was able to work and conduct his business.
    2. In Imperial Bedlam Sandowsky discusses a totally different environment in which insanity was judged. In Nigeria, colonial policy, infused with social meanings, determined the identification and treatment of people suffering from insanity. The symptoms and diagnoses were determined by the colonial powers and, ultimately, procedures were followed with the goal of enforcing social order. In the later years of French control, as the Nigerians took on more of the decision making and actual administration of mental health care, therapeutic services expanded. Discuss the implications. Where does cultural understanding fit into this picture?
    Interesting point: One has a negative reaction when learning that so many mentally ill in England and in French North Africa were incarcerated in asylums that were more prisons than hospitals. However, I would suggest that the same situation exists today in the United States. Due to political policy decisions made in the 1970s and 1980s, state hospitals were closed and thousands of mentally ill people were cast adrift. The criminal justice system, by default, has assumed a major role in the care and supervision of large numbers of these ill people. Various studies, one conducted jointl6y by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and the Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, have found that between 7.2 percent and as high as 35 percent of inmates in prisons across the nation suffer from serious mental health problems. The reduction in funding for state run psychiatric facilities and the large increases in spending for correctional facilities made this transfer of mental health treatment from the civil to the criminal justice setting almost inevitable. Once in prison, these tens of thousands of people with mental disabilities usually become worse, unable to cope with the prison environment.

  6. Jacob Jones says:

    The pre-independence role of the asylums in colonial southwest Nigeria presented by Sadowsky is an interesting case study and brought these questions to mind. Though he partly answers this issue by referencing the contradictory concerns of “Indirect Rule”, the lack of concern for the institutions is curious for a few reasons. Why would a colonial government neglect the use of an institution that would restrict dissent and confine dissenters on a basis of mental instability? In fact, they release Isaac O who spoke directly against the colonial rulers. There is one instance of this type of use and later he describes the power of the asylums as “coercive” on p.116, but I ask how coercive they actually were in terms of enforcing colonial hegemony? This is not to argue that they were not an inherently coercive force, but the sometimes relaxed release for native healing and multiple releases of Isaac O. indicate a lack of active coercion on the part of administrators.

    Once again the idea of medicalization has an interesting impact on the readings this week. With an issue on the borders of medicine, how was the growing medical culture to cope? The medicalization, brought out in Sadowsky’s section on somatization, carried false conceptions with it. The lack of physiological markers led, in many cases, the somatization of mental illness. The medicalization served once again to marginalize a group suffering from affliction. What misconceptions from the past medical models are still factors in today’s view of mental illness? Is the biomedical model still affecting the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness? To what extent?

    An interesting connection was in the uses of power and control in asylums. There was a much different dynamic in England than in Nigeria, which revealed the lack of interest in real change in their colonies, and thus the contradictions of colonial “Indirect Rule”. While the asylums could be used to silence dissension to some extent, the power gained would not have majorly benefited their financial goals in the region.

  7. Christopher Malmberg says:

    1: Sadowsky argues that insanity in colonial Southwest Nigeria was, in part, informed by the experience of colonialism in regards to the patients manifestation of insanity. At the same time, he makes it very clear that he neither believes colonialism caused insanity nor that insanity is purely a socially constructed label. Does he mean that the individuals he looked at would have been insane regardless of colonialism and that their ravings would have just taken on a different subject? I have a hard time following this, as well as a hard time believing that insanity is not a socially constructed label. Sadowsky points out that family members of those deemed insane would generally agree with the officials; however, they only agree under the disability of colonialism. We have no idea if they would have had any concept similar to the western European idea of “insanity” if the British had never colonized the area. I think his work would have greatly benefited from some sort of comparative study.

    2: In all of the readings the colonized populations are generally talked about in a similar manner as those with disabilities are talked about. In previous readings we saw how groups such as women and African Americans were described by their contemporaries as disabled and came to the conclusion that they were in fact disabled because of this. Can we come to the same conclusion in regards to those colonized. In other words, is colonization a form of disability?

    Muddiest Points: In all these discussions of insanity there has not been a clear definition of what scholars today, as well as contemporaries, deem insane. Western medicine would declare a woman that believes herself to be filled with demons and therefore screeches and has body convulsions as insane. Scholars looking at her case study would probably agree that she has some sort of mental instability. Yet that woman, as well as her entire community, believes she is having a normal religious experience. I am still very unsure of how we classify individuals in our own work. Is it okay to refer to this woman as a hysteric and thus talk about her through the discourse of hysteria and disability, even though she and her community would take offense to the idea?

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