Psychiatry and the Selves We Might Become: An Interview with Sociologist Nikolas Rose, Mad in America, 19 August 2020
MIA’s Ayurdhi Dhar interviews the well-known sociologist of medicine, Nikolas Rose, about the role psychiatry plays in shaping how we manage ourselves and our world.
ikolas Rose is a professor of Sociology in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at King’s College London. His work explores how concepts in psychiatry and neuroscience transform how we think about ourselves and govern our societies.
Initially training as a biologist, Rose found his subjects unruly: “My pigeons would not peck their keys, and my rats would not run their mazes. They preferred to starve to death.” He moved on to study psychology and sociology and has become one of the most influential figures in the social sciences as well as a formidable critic of mainstream psychiatric practice.
Rose builds on the work of philosopher Michel Foucault to reveal how concepts in psychiatry and psychology go beyond explanation to construct and construe how we experience ourselves and our world. Consistent with Foucault’s oft-quoted adage, “My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous,” Rose’s work avoids simplistic explanations of why and how the mental health fields go awry and instead examines how injustices can happen without unjust people. In this way, his work often transcends critique and imagines new possibilities and ways of thinking about “mental health,” “normality,” “brains and minds,” and, ultimately, the selves we might yet become.
Dhar: Foucault’s work highlights that it was not simply that doctors had expert psychiatric knowledge, but instead, their stature created expertise. Similarly, it was not that asylums were healing, but because people were put in these places, they came to be seen as places of treatment.
Rose: Foucault points out that doctors gained control of the asylum not because they had great expert knowledge about madness, but because they were considered to be wise people in light of a series of scandals around the commercialization of asylums and their terrible conditions. Europe and North America began to regulate how people got into asylums and decided it was obviously through the doctors because they considered them wise trustworthy people.
Foucault also helped us question the whole idea of “origins.” Birth of the Clinic showed that the doctor’s “clinical gaze” emerges as a consequence of a whole series of contingent things that happened at that time, such as changes in French laws of assistance. When people were sick and needed free healthcare, they had to go into hospitals.