Research page

Timeline: Fall 2021-Summer 2026
Funding institution: Swiss National Science Foundation in the framework of project leader Mischa Suter’s Eccellenza Professorial Fellowship



How was the world-historical process of decolonisation linked to ideas of the human psyche, both in its individual and social dimensions? And how did the sciences of the mind respond to the end of empire? During the long moment of decolonisation, debates on the human psyche took place in a new key: was the psyche universally the same? Or was it culturally distinct? These questions – pondered by anthropologists, colonial psychiatrists, anti-imperial activists, and global mental health organisations alike – gained tremendous political urgency during the long process of decolonisation. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, ethnopsychology, a scientific field at the intersection of psychology and anthropology, framed reflections on the nature of the human psyche and its relation to world society. Ethnopsychology – used here as an umbrella term for various diverging and contradictory approaches – provided a shifting terrain in which changing notions of culture and race were negotiated at a moment when the vocabularies and repertoires of colonial science proved to be no longer valid, but uncertainty prevailed as to what they should be replaced by.


The project

With a perspective from the history of science, the project examines how psychological experts conceptualised the psyche of people from the Global South. For that purpose, we reconstruct the history of the dialogue between anthropology and psychology across three different sub-disciplines: psychoanalysis, developmental psychology, and psychiatric epidemiology. A central hypothesis of the project is that ethnopsychology was a technique for attempting to come to terms with, and even to manage, the end of empire, all the while acting as a factor catalysing it. Thus, we aim for a more thorough understanding of the social and cultural dimensions of decolonisation and, especially, its impact on Europe.

The five-year project (fall 2021 – summer 2026) is sponsored by the Swiss National Science Foundation in the framework of project leader Mischa Suter’s Eccellenza Professorial Fellowship.

This sub-project led by Mischa Suter focuses on the history of psychoanalysis in transcultural settings. At its center is a small group of radical Swiss psychoanalysts who belonged to the anti-fascist generation of the left, travelled to West Africa during the Cold War and were widely received by the New Left after 1968, and whose experience is juxtaposed here with other experiments with psychoanalysis in Africa.

Conceived as a conceptual history, the project inquires into the political import of psychoanalytical encounters in the era of decolonisation: how notions of self and society, liberation and utopia, as well as of repression and alignment were transformed. While psychoanalysis has been a major theoretical orientation for postcolonial studies, the actual history of psychoanalysis, that is to say, its practices and politics, have hardly ever been researched so far. By doing this, the case study aims to contribute to a new understanding of how decolonisation impacted the political and intellectual landscape of Europe.

This sub-project carried out by Joshua Klein focuses on the epistemological and political relationship of ethnology and psychiatry in the twentieth century and its function as expert knowledge in the international scientific discourse during the postwar period when decolonisation and migration established new zones of contact between cultures. From psychological anthropologists promoting cultural diversity at UNESCO to psychiatric epidemiologists rendering the mind as a problem of data in WHO projects, intellectuals in international organisations engaged in the collection and dissemination of techniques and theories to describe and compare the mentalities not only of individuals, but of cultures and societies which raised new questions about the universality of the human psyche.

Contributing to the history of developmental psychology, this sub-project led by Pokuaa Oduro-Bonsrah delves into the constructions of inferiority and hypersexuality based on observations and comparisons of child rearing practices across cultures. As such it will be an aim to trace different movements since the interwar period and its preoccupations with infantile socialisation, as observing the behaviour of children in different ‘cultural contexts’ provided a testing ground for psychological theories of attachment and stages of child development. The results of the study will hopefully reveal the highly political nature of observing children during colonialism and the critical decolonial moment.


Mischa Suter. 2021. Pathologien der Freiheit: Fanon und die Psychiatrie. Soziopolis. November 25.



Psychopolitics in the Era of Decolonization. Workshop organised at the Geneva Graduate Institute, 6-8 October 2022.

Remeasuring Self and Society after Empire: The Human Sciences in Decolonization. International conference organised at the Geneva Graduate Institute, 22-24 May 2024.

Banner: Paul Parin with Abinu from the Dogon people, Mali, 1960. © Studio and Archive Paul Parin and Goldy Parin-Matthèy, Sigmund Freud University, Vienna.