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Biologizing social facts: an early 20th century debate on Kraepelin's concepts of culture, NA, & degeneration

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By Roelcke V • www.ProHealth.com • December 15, 1997


This paper uses an historical approach to elucidate two
alternative modes of conceptualizing the relation between
social factors and psychological phenomena perceived as
pathological. The core features of Neo-Kraepelinian
psychiatric nosology associated with the introduction of
DSM-III in 1980 were also at the center of a debate in early
20th century Germany. The protagonists were Emil Kraepelin and
Oswald Bumke. Kraepelin's empirical research selectively
focused on somatic factors as independent variables, such as
alcohol, syphilitic infection, and heredity. The ensuing
nosology marginalised social factors which might contribute to
the etiology and symptom formation of psychiatric conditions.
For Bumke, the disorders in question (including the category
of neurasthenia) did not represent qualitative deviations from
normal psychological states, but quantitative variations of
ubiquitous psychological functions caused by a multitude of
somatic, psychological, and social factors. The main arguments
of the historical debate are reconstructed, with special
regard to the professional and political context. The paper
illustrates the importance of context- bound pre-'scientific'
decisions for the process of formulating theoretical concepts
in psychiatry and related disciplines.




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