Robert Levy’s book Tahitians: Mind and Experience in the Society Islands was a landmark study of the emotional and cognitive experiences of the Tahitians in the early 1960s. The book is not only the basis for including the Tahitians in the Encyclopedia of Selected Peaceful Societies portion of this website, it is also one of the foundation works in the field of ethnopsychology. Because of the importance of this book and Levy’s subsequent study of a village in Nepal, the journal Ethos decided to devote the fourth issue of 2005 to his work.
We will review, this week, an article that provides an overview of Levy’s works and that analyzes his importance for his field. Next week we will review his last major article, which was included in the special issue. It compares the cultures and psychological states of Tahiti and of the Nepalese village. The last review, in two weeks, will focus on an article by Paula Levin that updates, at least by a decade, Levy’s experience in Tahiti.
Except for the article by Levy himself, the contributions to this issue of Ethos are revisions of papers by colleagues and former students of Levy’s delivered at a session of the American Anthropological Association in 2000. The paper by Levy is the text of a lecture he gave in 2001 at a conference of the Society for Psychological Anthropology. Levy died in 2003.
Douglas Hollan evaluated the importance of Levy’s two major books for the field of ethnopsychology. During the formative stages in the history of that field, Levy pioneered a technique for interviewing indigenous people with open ended questions and leading conversations about the personal and private aspects of their behaviors. His first experience with this technique was in the remote Tahitian village of Piri.
Hollan points out that Levy, his mentor in graduate school, became fluent in the Tahitian language. He understood nuances of the language and informal conversations, as well as local culture and history. His mastery of the culture and language of the Tahitian people was important when he began to analyze their uses of terms that indicated their psychological states and emotions. During the two years he lived on Piri, he got to know some members of the community quite well, so he could engage people in lengthy reflections on their experiences. Some of those conversations led to discussions of the attitudes and predispositions of his Tahitian friends.
The author points out that Levy’s interviews of the Tahitians, while psychiatric in nature, differed from the standard office practices of the psychiatrist. When he talked with members of the community, they had not sought him out for his professional expertise; he was not an anonymous professional counselor—he was an active member of the village. He realized, therefore, that people might have been hiding or manipulating what they told him. Nonetheless, he used open-ended interviews to elicit information from them about their concerns and psychological states.
Levy was particularly fascinated with the ways the subjective experiences of the individuals he interviewed related to the broader cultural, social, economic, and political contexts of the villagers’ lives. Hollan argues that Levy put his detailed notes and quotations to good use, for instance to ground his theory that shame is “hypercognized” in Tahiti.
Hollan provides several quotes and examples to illustrate the ways Levy interviewed people and gathered material for his analyses. He quotes from written passages by Levy that suggest the differences between simple gathering of information and attempting to understand the emotions and thought patterns of people.
As Levy wrote in 1989, “while a question during an interview such as … ‘What are the responsibilities of a chief here?’ produces, for the most part, cultural information, the probe, ‘What is it like for you to be a chief?’ will elicit information about personal experience and organization. Many aspects of form can be put to analytic use here—facial expressions and body language (capable of being recorded by video tape) as well as paralinguistic features, and a rich field of thematic clumpings, distortions, evasions, hesitations, slips of the tongue, and confusions …” (p.463). The riches that careful readers will find in Tahitians: Mind and Experience in the Society Islands are effectively explained in this article by Douglas Hollan.
Hollan, Douglas. 2005. “Setting a New Standard: The Person-Centered Interviewing and Observation of Robert I. Levy.” Ethos 33(4): 459-466.