The Spirit Catches you and you fall Down

Summary | Theory | Methodology | Data Analysis | Conclusions

Theoretical Perspective

Highlighted Points

In The Spirit Catches you and you Fall Down, Fadiman presents the medical case of Lia Lee against the fabric of cultural relativism.  In examining Fadiman’s perspective, though, we should look first at the anthropological meaning of cultural relativism.  We can then place Fadiman’s perspective in context, and perhaps apply her conclusions beyond medical education to K-12 contexts.

Going back to the beginning of the 20th century, we can find evidence in the literature that early anthropologists were concerned with the make-up of culture and its various influences.  Alan Barnard (2000) uses the last words from the 1922 edition of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough to illuminate the cultural relativist’s emerging view of the fabric of culture.Paj ntaub

Without dipping so far deep into the future we may illustrate the course which thought has hitherto run by likening it to a web woven of three different threads –the black thread of magic, the red thread of religion, and the white thread of science … Could we then survey the web of thought from the beginning, we should probably perceive it to be at the first a chequer of black and white, a patchwork of true and false notions, hardly tinged as yet by the red thread of religion.  But carry your eye farther along the fabric and you will remark that, while the black and white chequer still runs through it, there rests on the middle portion of the web … a dark crimson stain, which shades off insensibly into a lighter tint as the white thread of science is woven more and more into the tissue (Frazer, 1922, p. 713 in Barnard, 2000, p. 37).

Frazer’s fabric treats us to a metaphor of thought and culture that emphasizes taking a pretty close look at the threads that influence both our developing thought and the interrelated view of meaning in context. 

            Much later, in reinforcing cultural relativism, Clifford Geertz critiqued a dominant tendency among ethnographers to search for universals of culture and sought to build on the semiotic theory of culture.  Geertz proposed that culture was “a set of control mechanisms –plans, recipes, rules, … for the governing of behavior” (Geertz, 1973, p. 44) and that people depended on these mechanisms to order their behavior.  Geertz advocates cultural relativism as applied to specific human behavior governed by cultural fabric: “One of the most significant facts about us may finally be that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end in the end having lived only one” (p. 45).

            The concept of cultural relativism emerges as an important consideration in Fadiman’s work. Cultural relativism has evolved over time but remains a part of anthropological thinking in the United States particularly where epistemological relativism is concerned.  According to Barnard (2000), cultural relativists argue that “culture regulates the way human beings perceive the world” (p. 99).  With its roots in cultural determinism, epistemological relativism holds that there are no generalizable cultural patterns (p. 100).  The understanding of the behavior of people must be done within the context of their cultures and interpreted, as Geertz would say, utilizing the strategy of “thick description” borrowed from Gilbert Ryle (Geertz, 1973, p. 6). 

            Geertz, according to Barnard, has been a leader among the theoretical advocates of cultural relativism within anthropology in the United States.  The concept is not without its critics, though.  Ernest Gellner, for example, places the onus on Geertz for leading a generation of anthropological thinking toward subjectivist styles and postmodernism.  If everything is relative, “what is there to do other than express the anguish engendered by this situation in impenetrable prose” (Gellner, 1992, p. 45 in Barnard, 2000, p. 173)?

            In Fadiman’s story of Lia, the dominating medical epistemology provided the mechanisms of interpretation for the medical community.  Effie Bunch, for example, a nurse at the Merced Community Medical Center (MCMC), provides this observation of Hmong epistemology:  “I don’t think the mom and dad ever truly understood the connection between a seizure and what it did to the brain … My general impression was that they really felt we were all an intrusion and that if they could just do what they thought best for their child, that child would be fine” (Fadiman, 1997, p. 48).  Later in Fadiman’s narrative, she quotes Dan Murphy, a resident at MCMC, in a reasonably reflective moment: “And the other thing that was different between them and me was that they seemed to accept things that to me were major catastrophes as part of the normal flow of life.  For them, the crisis was the treatment, not the epilepsy [italics in original]” (p. 53).  Additionally, Raquel Arias, an obstetrician at MCMC, indicated that “According to their beliefs and principles, they are trying to protect the mother and the baby and their way of life.  And what you think is necessary happens to be exactly the opposite of what they think is appropriate” (p. 75). 

            In thinking about Frazer, Geertz and Fadiman, I wonder how, in the broader sense, similar misinterpretations are played out in schools.  In Choosing Democracy: A Practical Guide to Multicultural Education, Duane Campbell (2000) presented one view.  Campbell argued a relativistic perspective in claiming that people are so deep within their own culture that they “are not even aware they have a world view.  They assume that all people see reality through a perspective similar to their own.  Persians (Iranians) have a saying for this myopia: ‘It is difficult for the fish to see the stream.’” (p. 49).  Yet, in characterizing cultural relativism as an ethical research stance, Campbell argued that teachers, in respecting cultural differences, have a different agenda than the research ethnographers.  Teachers need to reject the notion of  “melting pot cultural domination,” and accept the role of “cultural mediators and present models of ethical behavior that encourage equality and respect” (p. 45).

            Interestingly, Fadiman’s book has a good deal to say about the notion of the melting pot perspective on immigration and the harm it does.  Chapter 14 goes into quite some detail to capture xenophobic comments and official documents that reflect how one culture can so dominate another as to lay blame on the “Other” for inabilities, misinterpretations, and even “Stone Age” mentalities (pp. 188-189).  In some sense, Fadiman’s comments on what to do to as cultural mediators when seeking to bridge differences match fairly well with Campbell’s suggestions.  Campbell suggested teachers take the role of cultural mediators, while Fadiman advocates the use of interpreters as “cultural brokers” (pp. 264-265).  In either context, when moral decisions are to be made regarding the treatment of people, there is much room for interpretation and ethical behavior.


            Barnard, A. (2000). Interpretive and postmodernist approaches, History and theory in anthropology (pp. 158-177). Cambridge, UK: University Press.

            Campbell, D. (2000). Choosing democracy: A practical guide to multicultural education (2 ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

            Fadiman, A. (1997). The spirit catches you and you fall down. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

            Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures (pp. 3-30): Basic Books.