Psychiatry and Politics in Pelotas, Brazil: The Equivocal Quality of Conduct Disorder and Related Diagnoses

Abstract

The world-wide emergence of categories for diagnosing mental health problems in children and youth such as conduct disorder is often attributed to the globalization of a highly biomedical form of psychiatry. In Brazil, a small group of therapists are resisting biomedicalization by keeping psychodynamic traditions alive and aiming to transform psychotherapy into a resource for politicized youth empowerment. Nevertheless, clinical practices demonstrate an increased use of biomedical diagnoses and therapeutic routines. On the basis of fieldwork with therapists and teachers, and a nine-year-long ethnography of young people, this article explores the localized effects of these potentially contradictory developments. Results show that the growth of biomedical practices alongside politicized therapeutic approaches is not indicative of underlying ambiguities but has, rather, emerged from the purposefully equivocal nature of Brazilian social, medical, and professional life. The article uses this Brazilian case study to critically debate theories of medicalization in the anthropology of psychiatry.