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I have written on cultural relativism, ethnographic diversity and human tolerance; Southeast Asian psychiatric disorders (amok, latah, koro, collective spirit possession); the history of psychiatry; mass psychogenic illness and collective conversion disorder; moral panics and social scares, post-partum psychosis; gender studies; deception by anthropological informants; collective behaviour (fads, rumors, crazes, riots, social movements, moral panics); the history of witchcraft; False Memory Syndrome; social delusions; urban legends; media hoaxes and the history of tabloid journalism; critical thinking; the history of dubious medical conditions (Gulf War Syndrome, Multiple Personality Disorder, Fibromyalgia); the fantasy-prone personality; human perceptual fallibility; conformity dynamics; pseudoscience; cryptozoology; Islam in Malaysia; the inappropriate placement of medical labels onto unfamiliar or unpopular non-western behaviours (i.e., the medicalization of deviance); the psychological impact of chemical and biological terrorism scares; New England folklore; Malaysian folklore; history of minority religious movements.  I have served as a referee for such international peer-reviewed journals asDeviant BehaviorFeminism and PsychologyTranscultural PsychiatryHealth Psychology; and The British Journal of Medical Psychology, as well as The University of Kentucky Press and Prometheus Books.

 

Research on Culture-Specific Psychiatric Syndromes

I am a leading advocate for removing medical or psychiatric labels that have been placed on several 'mental disorders' found only in certain cultures.  I have written extensively on the history of the culture-specific 'disorders' of latah and koro, and argue that they are idioms of distress that have been 'mistranslated' by Western psychiatrists as illnesses, as investigators are unfamiliar with their local context and meaning. 

 

The Remarkable Case of Latah

For over a century, anthropologists and psychiatrists have debated the origin and nature of a curious behavior found almost exclusively in the Southeast Asian countries of Malaysia and Indonesia.  Upon being startled, ordinarily shy, polite women will respond with obscenities and outrageous sexual gestures.  In severe cases, the women experience “automatic obedience” and do whatever they are told until their temporary trance-like state wears off.  Afterward they claim amnesia and are not held responsible for their actions. 

During the field research for my latah studies in Malaysia, I examined 37 cases from the same Malay extended family, and argue that there is neither a single first-hand account of a latah subject inflicting serious injury nor a recorded legal case describing the perpetration of a violent act.  Furthermore, neither participants nor onlookers appear to be distressed by paroxysms, nor do they seek patient status, supporting early ethnographic accounts which suggest that latah is a deviant social role.  I believes that this explains why cases are almost exclusively confined to Malayo-Indonesia.  I view patients as ‘performers’ who are engaged in conscious, ritualized social gain.

See:

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Radford, Benjamin (2003). "Latah: Strange Mental Disorder or Exotic Custom," pp. 93-104, in Hoaxes, Myths and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books.  

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1999). "The Conspicuous Absence of a Single Case of Latah-Related Death or Serious Injury." Transcultural Psychiatry 36(3):369-376.

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1999). Rejoinder to Invited replies by Drs. Ronald Simons, Michael G. Kenny and Robert L. Winzeler on "The Conspicuous Absence of a Single Case of Latah-Related Death or Serious Injury." Transcultural Psychiatry 36(3):393-397.

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1997). "The Medicalization of the Exotic: Latah as a Colonialism-Bound 'Syndrome.'" Deviant Behavior 18:47-75.

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1995). "Culture-Bound Syndromes as Fakery." The Skeptical Inquirer 19(6):36-41.

 

 

The Extraordinary Case of Koro

One of the most peculiar disorders in psychiatric textbooks today is the so-called mental disorder known as koro:  a condition typified by the belief that a person’s genitals are shrinking. In the case of females, they may think their breasts or vulva is shrinking.  Rare individual cases have been linked to a variety of causes ranging from brain tumors to dysmorphic body image disorder (akin to anorexia).  In individual cases that are not linked to a biological cause, most patients appear to be suffering from serious sexual dysfunction.  However, my research focuses on collective outbreaks, which I argue, do not constitute an example of a mental disorder, but instead are a social delusion.  It is critical to understand that in every culture where collective outbreaks occur, there are long-held social and cultural traditions supporting its reality. For instance, in parts of southern China where collective outbreaks have been recorded sporadically for hundreds of years, people grow up knowing that this 'disease' exists.  I argue that victims are simply experiencing the physiological consequences of anxiety generated by a false belief, and the cognitive consequences of altered perceptual sets.  I believe that the misclassification of koro as a psychiatric disorder, is based on the fantastic, implausible nature of the participants’ beliefs per se, relative to Eurocentric social realities.  That is, there is a widely held assumption among Western psychiatrists, that no one in their ‘right mind’ could engage in such behaviors and be normal.  In 2001, former Chair of the World Psychiatric Association's Transcultural Psychiatry section, Dr. Wolfgang Jilek, and his wife Dr. Louise Jilek-Aall, co-authored a book chapter with me in supporting the position that collective outbreaks of koro represent a form of social delusion and is not a psychiatric condition.  

See: 

Evans, Hilary, and Bartholomew, Robert E. (2009). Genital-Shrinking Scares," pp. 194-203, in The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior. New York: Anomaly Books.  

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Radford, Benjamin (2003). "Genital-Shrinking Scares," pp. 123-134, in Hoaxes, Myths and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books.  

Bartholomew, Robert E., Jilek, Wolfgang, and Jilek-Aall, Louise (2001). "Penis Panics:  Collective Delusions Outside the West." pp. 145-157.  In Bartholomew, Robert E. Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Headhunting Panics:  A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusions.  Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishing. 

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1998). "The Medicalization of Exotic Deviance:  A Sociological Perspective on Epidemic Koro.” Transcultural Psychiatry 35(1):5-38.

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Gregory, Jane (1996). "'A Strange Epidemic:'  Notes on the First Detailed Documented Case of Epidemic Koro." Transcultural Psychiatric Research Review 33:365-366.

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1994). "Disease, Disorder or Deception? Latah as Habit in a Malay Extended Family." The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 182(6):231-238.

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1994).  “The Social Psychology of 'Epidemic' Koro." The International Journal of Social Psychiatry 40(1):46-60.

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1999). “Penis Panics:  The Psychology of Penis-Shrinking Mass Hysterias.”  The Skeptic 7(4):45-49.


Mass Psychogenic Illness (AKA, "Mass Hysteria)

I have written extensively on the subject of mass psychogenic illness, which is far more common than most mental health professionals realize.  Outbreaks are becoming increasingly recognized as a significant health and social problem and are often a significant financial burden to responding emergency services, public health and environmental specialists, hospital personnel, and the affected school or work site, which may be closed for days or weeks. Further, victims may refuse to enter the premises again and change schools or work sites. In some instances, the financial costs are staggering. In 1999, several outbreaks among Belgian schoolchildren attributed to tainted soda resulted in nationwide anxiety and the recall of Coca-Cola products. This cost the company upward of US$250 million. In 2007, an Australian episode associated with an inoculation campaign for human papillomavirus was linked to the loss of AU$1 billion in the share market value of the corporation producing the vaccine Gardasil.

I have published a number of case studies on mass hysteria occurring in a variety of social and cultural settings.  These include the following episodes:  The 'Phantom Gasser' of Botetourt County, Virginia, 'Mad Gasser of Mattoon,' Vancouver's 'Toxic Bus,' Toronto's 'Toxic Courthouse,' Psychogenic Pokémon Illness in Japan, and outbreaks at two high schools in Western New York State.   

 

See: 

Bartholomew, Robert E., Wessely, Simon, and Rubin, James (in press, 2012). "Mass Psychogenic Illness and the Social Network:  Is It Changing the Pattern of Outbreaks?" Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, December.

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Muniratnam, M. Chandra (2011). “How Should Mental Health Professionals Respond to Outbreaks of Mass Psychogenic Illness?” Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy 25(4): 235-239.

Evans, Hilary, and Bartholomew, Robert E. (2009). The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior. New York: Anomaly Books.   

Bartholomew, Robert E. (2001). Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Headhunting Panics:  A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusions.  Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishing. 

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Wessely, Simon (2007). “Canada’s ‘Toxic Bus:’ the New Challenge for Law Enforcement in the Post-911 World—Mass Psychogenic Illness.” The Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice 49(5):657-671.

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Radford, Benjamin (2007). "Mass Hysteria at Starpoint High." The Skeptical Inquirer 30(1):55-58 (January/February).

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Victor, Jeffrey (2004). “A Social Psychological Theory of Collective Anxiety Attacks.” The Sociological Quarterly 45 (2):229-248.

Ladendorf, Robert, and Bartholomew, Robert E. (2002). "The Mad Gasser of Mattoon: How the Press Created an Imaginary Chemical Weapons Attack." The Skeptical Inquirer 26(4):50-53, 58.

Radford, Benjamin, and Bartholomew, Robert E. (2001). "Pokémon Contagion: Photosensitive Epilepsy or Mass Psychogenic Illness?" The Southern Medical Journal 94(2):197-204.

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Sirois, Francois (2000). "Occupational Mass Psychogenic Illness: A Transcultural Perspective." Transcultural Psychiatry 37(4):495-524.

Bartholomew, Robert E. and Wessely, Simon (1999). "Epidemic Hysteria in Virginia: The Case of the Phantom Gasser of 1933-34." The Southern Medical Journal 92(8):762-769.

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1997). "Epidemic Hysteria: A Dialogue with Francois Sirois." Medical Principles and Practice 6:38-44.

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Sirois, Francois (1996). "Epidemic Hysteria in Schools: An International and Historical Overview." Educational Studies 22(3):285-311.

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1994). "Tarantism, Dancing Mania and Demonopathy: The Anthro-Political Aspects of Mass Psychogenic Illness." Psychological Medicine 24:281-306.

 

 

Moral Panics and Social Delusions

Collective Fears

I have also written on the genesis of moral panics whereby a nefarious agent is widely perceived to be eroding societal values, flight panics, general social scares, and episodes involving collective wish-fulfillment.  Case studies include the Scandinavian 'Ghost Rocket' Scare of 1946 when the fear of a Russian invasion coupled with post-World War II political anxieties and cometary spray entered the atmosphere combined to foster a widely held belief that Russia was test-firing German V-Rockets confiscated at the end of the war, over Scandinavia as a prelude to a 'push button' war and an eventual take-over. Other case studies that I have documented include:  the 1938 'War of the Worlds' Scare, sightings of imaginary German monoplanes over British at the onset of World War I in 1914, phantom German air raids on Canada during the first World War, and fear that poison gas from from the tail of Halley's Comet would cause mass extinctions on Earth as it passed by in May 1910.

 

Collective Hopes

Case studies of mass wish fulfillment include sightings of the an imaginary airship supposedly invented by a Worcester, Massachusetts resident during 1909-10, sightings of Thomas Edison's imaginary 'Electric Star' across the United States during the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, and widespread sightings of 'flying saucers' across the world since 1946 - tracing the origin of the myth to a single sighting in 1946, that was spread via a single Associated Press report and quickly proliferated.  I also view mass sightings of apparently mythical creatures that are never caught or physically verified with evidence such as a body, fossils or DNA (e.g., Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster) as forms of mass wish fulfillment.  I have conducted a case study on the Lake Champlain 'Monster' in the Northeastern United States and Quebec Province, Canada, arguing that the lake represents a kind of Collective Ink Blot that reflects popular hopes.

 

See: 

(Collective Fears)

Bartholomew, Robert E. (2005). "Preface." In Wells, H.G. (1898). The War of the Worlds. New York:  Paraview Press.

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Goode, Erich (2000). "Mass Delusions and Hysterias: Highlights from the Past Millennium." The Skeptical Inquirer 24(3):20-28.

Bartholomew, Robert E., Dawes, Glenn, and Dickeson, Bryan (1999). "Expanding the Boundary of Moral Panics: The Great New Zealand Zeppelin Scare of 1909." New Zealand Sociology 13(1):29-61.

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Goode, Erich (December 1999). "Phantom Assailants and the Madness of Crowds: The Mad Gasser of Botetourt County." The Skeptic 7(4)50-55.

Bartholomew, Robert E., Dawes, Glenn, Liljegren, Anders, and Svahn, Clas. (1999). "The Swedish Ghost Rocket Delusion of 1946: Anatomy of a Moral Panic." Fortean Studies 6:64-74.

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1999). "Remembering the 'Mad Gasser' of Mattoon, Illinois."  Illinois Skeptics Newsletter (REALL) 7(4):4-6 (April).

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Rickard, Robert J. (January 2000). "The Phantom Menace." The Fortean Times. (Robert Rickard, editor, Fortean Times).Bartholomew, Robert E. (1998). "The Martian Panic Sixty Years On: What Have We Learned?" The Skeptical Inquirer 22(6):40-43 (November-December).

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1998). "Phantom German Air Raids on Canada: War Hysteria in Quebec and Ontario during World War I." Canadian Military History 7(4):29-36.

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1998). "War Scare Hysteria in the Delaware Region in 1916." Delaware History 28(1):71-76 (Spring/Summer 1998).

Bartholomew, Robert E. "German Invasion of New Hampshire." New Hampshire Magazine (June 1998).

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1998). "The Great New Zealand Zeppelin Scare of 1909."  New Zealand Skeptic Number 47(Autumn):1, 3-5. 

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Cole, Phillip (1998). "Britain's Zeppelin Hysteria: A Classic Illustration of the UFO Myth."  (Dr. Philip Cole, Department of History and Politics, James Cook University. The Skeptic (Great Britain) 11(3):10-15. 

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1998). "The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic: A Famous Mass Delusion of the Twentieth Century." Reality Check (Washington Skeptics Newsletter) 2(2):7-8 (Fall).  

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1998). "The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic: A Famous Mass Delusion of the Twentieth Century." Reality Check (Washington Skeptics Newsletter) 2(2):7-8 (Fall).  Bartholomew, Robert E. (1997). "Collective Delusions: A Skeptic's Guide." The Skeptical Inquirer 31(3):29-33.

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1993). "Redefining Epidemic Hysteria: An Example from Sweden." Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 88:178-182. 

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1991). "Mutilation Mania--The Witch Craze Revisited: An Essay Review of An Alien Harvest by Linda Howe." Anthropology of Consciousness 3(1-2):23-25.

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1989). "The South African Monoplane Hysteria: An Evaluation of the Usefulness of Smelser's Theory of Hysterical Beliefs." Sociological Inquiry 59(3):287-300.

 

 

See:

(Collective Hopes - Wish fulfillment) 

Bartholomew, Robert E. (2012). The Untold Story of Champ:  A Social History of America's Loch Ness Monster. Albany, New York: The State University of New York Press. 

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Evans, Hilary (2006).  “The Martians Are Coming.” Fortean Times 199:42-46 (June).

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Billings, Dorothy (2005). “The President Johnson Cult.”  Fortean Times 199:42-46 (December). 

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Whalen, Steven (2002). "The Great New England Airship Hoax of 1909." The New England Quarterly 466-476 (September).

Bartholomew, Robert E. (2000). "From Airships to Flying Saucers: Oregon's Place in the Evolution of UFO Lore." Oregon Historical Quarterly 101(2):192-213.

Bartholomew, Robert E., and Howard, George S. (1998). UFOs & Alien Contact:  Two Centuries of Mystery.  Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books. 

 

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1998). "Before Roswell: The Meaning Behind the Crashed UFO Myth." The Skeptical Inquirer 22(3):29-30, 59.

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1998). "Technology and Mass Delusion: Remembering Edison's 'Electric Star' Hysteria." Technology: Journal of the Franklin Institute 335A(1):65-67.

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1998). "Michigan and the Great Mass Hysteria Episode of 1897." Michigan Historical Review 24(1):133-141 (1998).

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1998). "The Oregon UFO Wave that Wasn't: The Importance of Press Skepticism in the 1896-97 Sightings." Pro Facto: Newsletter of Oregonians for Rationality 4(2):4-6 (Spring). 

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1998). "The Australian UFO Mania of 1909." The Skeptic (Australia) 18(1):28-30, 32. 

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1998). "Two Mass Delusions in New England: 'Light Bulb' Mania of 1897, and the Great Airship Hoax of 1909-1910."  The New England Journal of Skepticism 1(2):10-13. 

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1998). "Washington State's UFOs of 1897 and 1947-- Lessons from History." Reality Check (Washington Skeptics Newsletter) 2(1):1-2 (Spring). 

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1998). "The Importance of Historical Perspective: Remembering Colorado's UFO Mania of 1897."  The Rocky Mountain Skeptic 15:1, 5-7. 

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1998). "The Illinois UFO Mania of 1897:  Why We Should be Leery of Modern-Day UFO Reports."  The REALL News (Illinois Skeptics Newsletter) 6(3):1, 6-7 (March). 

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1998). "Pennsylvania UFO Sightings in 1897."  Phactum: The Newsletter of the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking 4(3): 1-2 (August). 

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1997). "Mass Hysteria in Kentucky 100 Years Ago." Kentucky Association of Science Educators and Skeptics 10(2):1, 3, 6-7. 

 

 

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1993). Miracle or Mass Delusion? What Happened in Klang, Malaysia?  Investigation conducted for The Religious Affairs Division of The Prime Minister's Department, Government of Malaysia. 23 pp.

Bartholomew, Paul, Bartholomew, Robert, Brann, William, Hallenbeck, Bruce (1992). Monsters of the Northwoods:  An Investigation of Bigfoot Sightings in New York and Vermont.  Utica, New York: North Country Books. 

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1992). "A Brief History of 'Mass Hysteria' in Australia." The Skeptic (Australia):23-26. 

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1988). Asian Harvest: Brainwashing or Finding God? (March, The Author), 26 pp.